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Shanta Gokhale


By Shevantibai Nikambe . Edited by Chandani Lokuge
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 117, Rs. 235.00


By Yashodabai Joshi . Translated from the Marathi by V.V. Bhide
Roli Books, Delhi, 2003, pp. 179, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 7 July 2004

Shevantibai Nikambe’s slim novel Ratanbai—A High-Caste Child Wife and Yashodabai Joshi’s A Marathi Saga—The Story of Sir Moropant and Lady Yashodabai Joshi are the most recent in a steady stream of women’s writings that have been translated and published over the past few years. Together they provide insights into three contentious issues that dominated the late 19th century—child marriage, ill-treatment of widows and women’s education. The issues were so volatile that they were known to split families down the middle, with university-educated young sons and their wives ranged on one side and the family elders on the other of the reformist-conservative divide.   Both novel and autobiography are accounts of upper-caste Hindu women’s lives. Ratanbai, the 11-year-old heroine of Nikambe’s novella is a Saraswat Brahmin from Mumbai. Yashodabai is a Chitpavan Konkanastha Brahmin married into the Joshi family of Amravati in the Vidarbha region of north Maharashtra. Nikambe and Joshi belong to that luminous generation of women— activists, institution builders, story-tellers and autobiographers like Parvatibai Athavale, Kashibai Kanitkar, Ramabai Ranade and the formidable Pandita Ramabai— who lived and worked to make a difference to women’s lives. By the turn of the century, stories like Nikambe’s “Ratanbai” were actually unfolding in several upper-caste families.   Ratanbai, married at the age of nine, continues to live with her parents while her husband graduates from Wilson College and goes to England to study Law. Her father,Vasudevrau is a wealthy lawyer and a progressive man. He has enrolled Ratan in a school for upper-caste Hindu wives where she has learned to love books. (Nikambe herself ran such a school, where the daughters and daughters-in-law of Mumbai’s upper crust were educated.) But Kakubai, an old widowed aunt living with the family strongly disapproves of this. So do Ratan’s uneducated in-laws. Their combined opposition finally wins the day and Ratan is removed from school. Vasudevrau who should have stood by her, cannot do so because he has married her off in the conventional way and must adhere to the customs that go with such marriages.   Typical of his generation, Vasudevrau straddles two mutually exclusive worlds. In his public and professional life he is the westernized lawyer with progressive views. At home he is the traditional Hindu householder. Nikambe demarcates these two worlds clearly in the opening pages of the novel, locating Ratan’s education ...


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