One of Hindi's best known writers, Prabha Khaitan spent much of her life as the 'second' woman in a long-term relationship with a married man. Born in a conservative Marwari family, she defied tradition, and family expectations, insisting on living her life as a single woman, setting up her own business and earning the respect of her peers and colleagues in the corporate world. Despite her yearning to be loved and cherished by the man to whom she gave her life, Prabha Khaitan lived life on her own terms.
With a frankness that is rare in the world of Hindi autobiographical writing by women, Prabha Khaitan here speaks of her feelings, her sense of discomfort and unease at not being the `legitimate' woman, about what she gained and lost from a relationship that was generally frowned upon by society and how she fought to become her own woman.
IRA PANDE is a writer and translator. Diddi: My Mother's Voice, her memoir of her mother, the well known Hindi writer Shivani, was shortlisted for the Vodafone-Crossword Award, and her translation of Manohar Shyam Joshi's T'ta Professor won both the Vodafone Crossword and the Sahitya Akademi awards for translation.
Anya se Ananya, (translated by Ira Pande as A Life Apart) was written by a woman of extraordinary spirit and determination. The late Dr Prabha Khaitan balanced her individuality, grit and personal success with a reckless and loving heart and a considered disregard for social norms. The author of novels like Chinnamasta, Peeli Aandhi, and Apne Apne Chehre was also an inspired entrepreneur and an astute businesswoman. Ms Khaitan had a doctorate in Existentialism and Philosophy, and was the acclaimed translator into Hindi of Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
As we go through her memoirs, these contradictions continue to compound. Born into a wealthy and well-known traditional Marwari business family, she made her own path and forged her own destiny at every stage of her life. Towards the end of the book, Ms Khaitan observes : 'Writing one's life is like a striptease act: you are exposed to hundreds of eyes watching you uncover your naked self. This may sound odd but it is also true that most of us take an exhibitionist's pleasure in doing so. The truth lies in the eyes of the beholder on the one hand, and on the other in the readers' perception of the truth. The strength of an honest bit of writing has its own pull and this is probably why an honest autobiography has a longer shelf life than a work of fiction.'
The greatest quality of Prabha Khaitan's writing, for me, lies precisely in this unwavering, unblinking truthfulness. Factoring in individual and social hypocrisies and prejudices, she thoughtfully negotiates versions of things said and done, leaving the reader to decipher the stops and silences.
At one level, this book is the anatomy of a marriage-both in her examination of her sustained relationship with her long-standing partner Dr Saraf, and the outsider depiction of his arranged marriage, in which Dr Saraf's wife was cognizant of their liaison. The reversal of roles as he became older and she grew more successful, the despair, even disgust, which is sometimes the bitter aftertaste of intimacy, the island of hurt she carried within herself-all these are articulated with philosophical detachment. Yet there are the notes of a suppressed scream rising like a wave, a scream directed not at her individual position, where she had achieved a well-earned eminence, but at the frailty and vulnerability of women's lives in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. She resolved this by the stance, revolutionary in her time, of a deeply feminist assertion of sexual choice combined with fierce financial independence.
A Life Apart is a portrait of its times: of the city of Kolkata, then still Calcutta, of being young in a moment of heady revolution, of watching the fabric of a society falling apart under the weight of its passions. It is also a study of the entrepreneurial spirit, and of the Marwari community in Kolkata, its multiple displacements, its commercial genius. The book also contains a series of lively, amusing pen portraits of a diverse dramatis personae of characters encountered across continents. The tragicomic evocation of Eileen, as Ms Khaitan grapples with the mysteries of American culture, is nothing short of brilliant.
At the heart of all this, in a passing mention, studiedly casual, is an abiding scar-her molestation as a child, by someone within her family.
Prabha Khaitan's story of her life and times is possibly one of the most honest books I have ever read. Sometimes it cuts too close to the bone for middle class comfort, unsettling the safety net and entitlements of complacency and convenience. All her life, she swam upstream, defying convention, defying prejudice, questioning choices.
Ira Pande's transparent rendering of the English version has given new life to this 'honest bit of writing'. She commented on the experience of translating the book: 'What attracted me to the story of Prabha Khaitan's life is her ability to weave in the small, seemingly insignificant, details of the world about her. Often, these are tantalising glimpses (as in he case of her family) but on other occasions they are searing insights into people, personalities and cultures that are intensely perceptive and tell us so much about her own self. Hidden in the story of her encounters in the US, for instance, is her own perception of herself-pride in her ability and Indian background but a crippling sense of inadequacy and confidence to face the world. She has a marvellous talent for making the little details larger than the big story....' A Life Apart is a significant scrutiny of a lived life, reminding us that the power of art is the power of truth.
Dr Prabha Khaitan passed away in Kolkata on 21 September 2008, at the age of 66.
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