BOOK REVIEW: INSIDE THE HAVELI BY RAMA MEHTA

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Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    ‘Inside the Haveli’ is a novel written by Rama Mehta. For this novel Rama Mehta was conferred ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ in the year 1979. The story of the novel revolves around a young girl from Mumbai, India. She gets married to the son of a former Indian prince and post-marriage she relocates to Udaipur, Rajasthan. This book was first published by Gulab Vazirani in 1977. The initial price of this book at the time of publication was Rs 40. The book completes in about 264 pages. But before I move ahead let me tell you a few things about author Rama Mehta.

    Rama Mehta was born in Nainital, India, in 1923. She rose to become a top sociologist, lecturer and even a novelist. Her non-fiction writings include The Western Educated Hindu Woman, The Hindu Divorced Woman, and ‘From Purdah to Modernity.’ One of the first women to be appointed to India’s Foreign Service, Rama Mehta was forced to resign from her position upon marriage. She died in 1978. The novel has received several compliments. Some are as follows:

    ‘A wonderfully interesting account … women should not miss it; neither should men—John Kenneth Galbraith, Canadian-born economist, public official, and diplomat.

    Says novelist Anita Desai, ‘I remember the surprised delight with which I first came upon Rama Mehta’s novel and encountered the freshness of her prose, the simplicity and tenderness of her evocation of an ancient and traditional way of life, and the understanding she brought to it.’

    Throughout her life, the principal theme of Rama Mehta’s writings was the position of women in tradition-bound but rapidly changing India. For, in addition to her three novels, she wrote a number of sociological books about the contemporary Indian woman including The Western Educated Hindu Woman and The Hindu Divorced Woman. And, just before she died in June 1978, Mehta completed a study of women in the Hindu nuclear family. It is, therefore, appropriate that her last novel, Inside the Haveli, should have won, though posthumously, that year’s Sahitya Akademy award for the best Indian novel in English.

    In essence it’s a modern classic about an independent young woman’s struggle to hold on to her identity in a traditional world.    The book in no manner has a very engrossing storyline. As mentioned earlier it is about Geeta, an educated and vivacious Bombay girl, who marries into a conservative family and abruptly finds herself living in purdah in her husband’s ancestral haveli at Udaipur. Faced with this and even certain other age old traditions that threaten to snuff out, her independence and progressive views, Geeta puts up an unnoticed fight to maintain her modernity that she has always lived by.

    It is always tough for an author to churn out a novel without a piercing story line, which Rama Mehta has done quite successfully. She has detailed it so very well that one gets to feel as if she was part of the family and has lived with them for a duration of time only to write this novel.

    Some other important characters apart from Geeta in the novel are Ajay Singh, husband of Geeta; Pari an old maid; Lakshmi another maid; Vijay Geeta’s daughter and Sita Lakshmi’s daughter.

    The novel depicts the beginnings of a social change in the life of the women from Mewar who continued, until 20th century, to practice the system of purdah long after Hindu women discarded it as an out-moded custom. It gives a detailed account of old Udaipur. Something like they eat in Silver thalis.

    In that manner ‘Inside the Haveli’ is an excellent novel about a young, college-educated girl of Bombay who marries the son of an ex-prime minister of the former princely state of Mewar and comes to her husband’s traditional haveli in Udaipur.

   The moment she steps out of the train, Geeta the main protagonist gets the biggest shock of her life, for not only is her face instantaneously covered by her women relatives and maid-servants who take complete charge of her, but she, also, immediately finds, herself, engulfed in a pattern of life which is totally alien to her modern upbringing in Bombay.

    As soon as she reaches “home”, she is further shocked by the realisation that the men and women live in different parts of the huge haveli, without any contact with each other. Indeed, life inside the haveli is governed by an impossibly rigid etiquette of dos and don’ts, and for her, as for all the other women, there is no life outside the high walls of the haveli.

    The youthful Geeta finds herself unable to reconcile with the idea of spending the rest of her life in purdah. But at the same time she sees no escape from this out-dated way of life, for her husband is too deeply rooted in his traditions and too deeply attached to his parents to take up a job in some other city.

    Moreover, she gradually comes to realise that, in spite of their exacting demands of conformity with the family tradition, her parents-in-law are essentially warm hearted and generous.

    Slowly and painfully Geeta finds herself adjusting with the life in the haveli with the thought of merging her identity and that of her children in the tradition of her husband’s ancient family.

    But in the process she succeeds in initiating certain reforms for the women of these ancient havelis by starting literacy classes for them and by sending the female children to school. Her women relatives, of course, oppose her plans, but her father-in-law, realising that with the end of the princely era, the old pattern of life could not possibly continue for long, supports Geeta’s attempt to make the women less dependent on the havelis.

    It is a fascinating novel in which the author has succeeded in conveying the essence and feel of a world which is fast disappearing.

    Jeewan Niwas is the centre-stage around which the entire clan of the ruling class, Rana’s stay. Traditionally these families have also served the Maharana of Udaipur, who was like God to them. They all seem to be together but yes there are internal rivalries too.

    A change of mindset is in the offing when Geeta is blessed with a daughter and celebrations break through. Lakshmi their maid leaves the haveli on some misunderstanding. Thereafter her daughter Sita is brought up by Bhagwat Singh ji’s wife who is Geeta’s mother-in-law.

    There is almost a chapter on young Sita’s wedding who is daughter of Lakshmi. The scene is very emotional and well described. It gives a vivid description of such marriages.

    Author has crafted some original and interesting words such as, ‘twig fire lit in a earthenware pot,’ than you have butter lamp’ and ‘fire-hot rotis’ to name a few.

    Overall it’s a very slow moving book, but well detailed with precise punctuation and simple language easy to understand. The book doesn’t sink in you unless you complete it in five to six sittings, nor does it have any recall quotient barring a peep into the havelis this is because of the faint story line. It has too many characters difficult to remember especially when it’s not a very happening book.

    You can pick up this book to understand what really goes on inside a haveli. I would give it eight out of ten for it meets the purpose for which it was written.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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