Why this 1949 love story is relevant in today’s times (Book Review)

By Shilpa Raina,

Title: Chander and Sudha; Author: Dharamvir Bharati translated by Poonam Saxena; Publisher:Penguin Viking; Pages: 351; Price: Rs.499

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It is almost impossible to imagine a 23-year-old man way back in 1949 thought of cultural symmetry in marriage and envisioned a progressive India where the caste system will break down and inter-caste marriages will flourish. He also raised questions about the association of sex and marriage through a grieved and confused protagonist whose conflicted personality is a story of many among us.

This was the magic iconic Hindi writer Dharamvir Bharati wove in his timeless love story ” Gunaho Ka Devta” which, for the first time is translated into English, and narrates the tale of the platonic love between the protagonists – Chander and Sudha.

To surmise it in one line: it is a usual love story with a tragic ending. But what makes it unusual is the author’s ability to turn things around by building tension through situations that invariably affect the actions of its characters, who are forced to make decisions that are beyond their control.

However, this remote-control movement highlights the helplessness of many relationships whose fate is hinged on societal approval and how many lives meet catastrophic endings because they have to abide by the rules laid down by society.

The recipient of the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, cleverly and wisely plays around the theme of “marriage culture” and how in those times it meant that a daughter would be at the mercy of her in-laws even if she has to meet her family; it focusses on the nagging attitude of a single-mother who constantly abuses her only girl-child, fearing she might take an unwarranted step in the absence of a father-figure from their life; how situations change a father’s view about inter-caste marriage and a continuous battle between the mind, body and soul to fit into social norms.

The playful friendship between Chander and Sudha is devoid of any sexual attraction, yet one can read between the lines and see the dynamic chemistry they share as a couple – who couldn’t be together. But the choice was in their hands to break free from the norms, but the intention of the author was to highlight how a man who has all the great qualities can ruin his own life by opting for sacrifice at his own will.

The seeds of his ruin are sown when he convinces Sudha to get married as per her father Dr. Shukla’s wishes. Though his heart is not convinced, his mind believes he would overcome the void Sudha’s departure will leave in his life. And he does so successfully, though after several failed attempts, as he finds solace in Pammi, an open-minded Christian girl, who tries to demystify the language of sex, love and marriage for him.

Hence begins the downward spiral of his life that revolves around confusion, guilt and madness till he witnesses Sudha’s death….and then he dies a silent death.

Bharati, who is best known for the play “Andha Yug” and novel “Suraj ka Satwan Ghoda”, uses this love story to hold a mirror against society’s brutal socio-economic divide that would tear apart people at the emotional level.

Interestingly, the story finds strange resemblance with Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s “Devdas” as in both stories, the male protagonist indulges in self-destruction after marrying off the one whom he truly loved.

Nevertheless, it surely isn’t an easy task to translate Bharati’s work, which is full of visceral observations and builds visual imaginary. But the translator has done justice in evoking an imagination that plays with natural elements like shadows and light, night and day, and sky and the sun.

Translating the work of a posthumous writer becomes a difficult task because one often runs into confusion; Poonam Saxena too met the same fate but she spent quality time with Bharati’s widow to understand his personality and perceptions.

“I would consult with his wife, Pushpaji, when I had some difficulties to understand what the author meant at some places which were open for interpretation,” Saxena told IANS, adding she read the novel almost 14 times during translation.

The younger generation might not relate with this love story whose foundation is laid on sacrifice, but Saxena has a different way of looking at things.

“You have to place yourself in another time because if you have to see how they are behaving in 2015 then it is very difficult to understand their turmoil,” she said.

She also pointed out that the caste system is yet to become irrelevant, even though the author wished it away way back in 1949.

“That is the irony, isn’t it? We are still battling what we were fighting decades back,” she said.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at [email protected])