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Thursday, 2 June 2011


Diddi: My Mother's Voice, Ira Pande, Penguin, 2005, p 216, Rs 250.

Reading Diddi while on holiday in the Kumaon mountains, later writing this review and e-mailing it from a poky little internet cafe across the lake from the house where Shivani lived for 15 years, has been an evocative experience. The sights and sounds of the mountains she loved so dearly are all around me. The lilting pahadi voices, the broad smiling faces, the women sporting bright red tikkas, the sound of temple bells drifting across the hills and dales are all there. What is missing, or perhaps hidden from sight by the hordes of tourists swarming these once pristine mountains, are the jewel-like characters that stud Shivani's writings, characters that she fleshed from real-life people who lived among the terraced fields and high-walled Brahmin households. What is gone most certainly is the way of life that she once knew and lived and the time-honoured social order that had begun to crumble in her own life time.
Diddi: My Mother's Voice by Ira Pande is, in many respects, an unusual book. For one, it speaks in many voices. There is, above all others, a singularly individual and highly idiosyncratic voice, the voice of Gaura Pant who adopted the nom de plum of Shivani. There is also Shivani the novelist speaking through the many characters she created in her short stories and novels. Leavening what would otherwise be a personal and fictional landscape, is the voice of a socially conscious being speaking through newspaper columns, essays, obituaries and travelogues. Then there is Ira Pande, the daughter, Ira Pande the translator, and Ira Pande the sutra dhar of this complex, many-stranded, multi-layered mise en scene. The narrative flits not just between voices but dips between past and present, between memory and fiction, between what was real and what seemed real.
Early on, Ira Pande explains the somewhat bewildering title: "Perhaps because we called our mother Diddi, elder sister, our relationship with her was always somewhat ambivalent. More than a mother she was for us a difficult sibling, an eccentric, much older sister who belonged to a different generation." In doing so, Pande sets the tone for what turns out to be an engaging tribute to a mother, a writer of near legendary proportions, a woman who delighted in breaking the mould yet paradoxically revered time-honoured traditions. In the process, Pande also provides a record of the proud families of Kasoon Brahmins and their struggles to cope with changing times when the old order began to yield to new.
Pande describes, often tongue firmly in cheek, what it was like growing up with a mother who was a writer, and a famous one at that. Shivani was never like other mums; she was this larger than life persona, one who leapt out of every line, every page she wrote, someone "who used up all the oxygen in a room". It must have been exhausting business, no doubt, keeping pace with that brilliant mind, razor-sharp wit and vast learning. Pande also ventures to give an explanation for the choice of pseudonym, a sort of alter ego, a synonym of Shivani's real name, Gaura:
            "'Shivani' at first seemed like a mask that gave her an assurance because of its anonymity but, as I read on, I realised it was much more. Diddi was actually two people, and she used the two personas as identical twins do: to confuse and confound. Like them, she had mastered the art of switching from one to the other so seamlessly that even she did not know any more who    she was... And yet there was a core of Diddi that   remained inviolate and secret all her life. She hid her      pains and fears from everyone -- even herself. Her    writing was for her a way of recording people and events that she could not bear to speak about."
Called Queen Lear by her other daughter, Mrinal Pande, there was an aura of almost destructive independence about her. She lived life on her own terms, refused help from all quarters, including her children, and lived with a retinue of faithful but eccentric servants in a flat in Lucknow. "Like Samson shorn of his locks, Diddi lost her energy when surrounded by placid people." And she needed that energy to write the stories that she wrote almost till her end, studding her narratives with characters and vignettes from the life around her.
Life, no matter how mundane, provided Shivani with a rich lode of incidents that she would one day weave into her stories. But it is her childhood and early years spent in Almora that forms the backdrop for her fictional universe. Faces from her past seem to shake her and ask: "Why have you not written about me?"  These include Vaishnavi, a nun who roamed the hills calling out Alakh mai, bhikhsha de!; the syphilitic Rajula who showed up periodically singing the Riturain songs of spring; Lohani ji the stentorian tutor and  manager of the household; and numerous colourfully loony aunts and uncles.
Born in 1928 in Rajkot, Shivani lived a peripetic and eclectic life travelling among the princely states. A disciple of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, she was educated at Shanti Niketan. Her style of writing is influenced by Tagore, by the lilt of Rabindra sangeet, by the thinking-out-of-the-box style of education given to her by legendary teachers such as Hajari Prasad Dwivedi and Abanindranath Tagore. Shivani told her stories simply and told them well. She wrote freely and fearlessly on issues that were often considered taboo by genteel society. Her novel, Chaudah Phere for instance, deals with the relationship between a daughter and her father who has married twice, shunning her mother. Her heroines were strong-minded and almost always beautiful (she admitted she could never write about ugliness in either locale or character!) Her best-loved works are: Krishnakali, Apradhini (a collection of interviews with women serving life sentences); Yatriki (a travelogue) and her two-part memoir (Smriti Kalash and Sone De). Her literary output was amazing — about 40 published works, and hundreds of articles and columns she undertook to write because she needed the money.
For those who knew her work and loved her, Diddi: My Mother's Voice presents a portrait of the woman behind the famous name. For the generation that might not have read her in Hindi, it previews a bold and exciting voice that transcends her time and age and retains its relevance and resonance. Neither fully memoir nor biography and certainly nothing as grim as an elegy, this is a lively attempt at recreating a voice that was vibrant and a persona that was nothing short of exceptional.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer and translator.)

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