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Stepping Across the Line

Barnita Bagchi

Translated by Meera Kosambi
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 339, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 12 December 2008

Meera Kosambi’s earlier collection of essays, Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History (2007) had introduced us to the writer Kashibai Kanitkar (1861-1948). This reviewer had been particularly intrigued by Kosambi’s section on Kanitkar’s utopian novella Palkhicha Gonda (The Palanquin Tassel, written in the late 1890s but published in 1928). It is good to have now in the collection under review an abridged translation by Kosambi of this piece of fiction. This collates issues of gender, family, conjugality, parental relations, women’s rights, education, and social reform. Centred round three siblings, a brother and two sisters, the story takes Rewati, the older of the sisters, through a marriage with a man of unsound mind who rules a princely state. Rewati’s family is deceived into this marriage, a device of the groom’s family, for the state can only be ruled by a married man. Rewati’s life is now ruined—or so it seems. The highpoint of the story is the symbol of the ‘palanquin tassel’, which Rewati’s mother invokes to describe the kind of rich family she dearly wants her daughter to marry into: when the hollowness of Rewati’s marriage is revealed, the tassel becomes a mockery of a symbol.   Rewati, however, turns her life around, making the palanquin tassel the name and emblem of her husband’s kingdom, and of her renovated life, rife though it remains with sadness and contradictions. She has a supportive mother-in-law and older brother: two figures of authority in the patriarchal family that she inhabits. She institutes several social reforms in the state that she now effectively rules over. This includes Shibika College, where women in non-functional marriages are educated. Offices, made hereditary are passed on to both men and women.   Women are given the right to fully exercise control over their stridhan. A plan is introduced to install a consultative committee, consisting half of women and half of men, on the panchayat model. Brahmins are patronized and paid by the state—but discouraged from living off the other subjects. Rewati’s sister Manu or Manikarnika meanwhile remains unmarried: a resounding verdict on marriage, which is none the less deeply attenuated by Rewati’s wifely devotion and constant public display of her husband as co-ruler. As this account reveals, The Palanquin Tassel is all the more fascinating for the many ways it parades its contradictions, limitations, and exclusions. The ...

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