Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy

Why the Centre and the ABVP must take classes on citizenship and democracy30.3K
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There are two forms of political engagement. In one, the exchange of ideas, and even intractable disagreements, are part of the rough and tumble of democratic politics. In the other, the coercive power of the State is used to settle all arguments forever.

The battle lines between proponents of these two forms of political engagement were firmly drawn this week, when union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, responding to complaints of his party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP sent the Delhi Police on to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, with the intention to intimidate an entire University.

Plainclothes policemen entered the JNU campus. A police photographer took pictures of students and faculty gathered at the university’s administrative block to protest the police presence and the arrest of students’ union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, on February 11.

Kumar has been remanded in police custody as the police “want to investigate any links he may have with terror organisations related to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan”.

Central intervention

Rajnath Singh said the police were acting on his instructions. He pre-empted any formal investigation of a complaint and the verification of facts with his comments a day after Kumar’s arrest. “… about what has happened in JNU… I have given the police all instructions necessary in these situations,” he said. “…strict action will be taken against them… Under no circumstances will I forgive those who raise this type of anti-Indian slogan or who question the unity, integrity…. of India.”

With the might of the State against it, the faculty and students on the JNU campus feel like they are under siege. The University has a system of complaint redressal, and a committee was set up to inquire into the events of February 9. That day, students are said to have chanted “divisive” slogans at an event organised to discuss the execution of Parliament attack-accused Afzal Guru, and the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir.

While there was some dissatisfaction with the composition of the committee, everyone agreed it was within the norms set by the university. There was no disruption of work and classes. Life should have gone one as usual. Yet, the administration caved in under government pressure and allowed the police to enter the campus to do what it “deems fit” after receiving a letter saying there was “seditious activity” on the campus.

The everyday world of a university like JNU has room for all sorts of opinions and political affiliations. Even the students’ union is composed of three different political groupings, one of which is the BJP affiliate, the ABVP. That JNU students of the ABVP themselves summoned the coercive forces of the State has shaken the world of this campus, where hot words and angry arguments are usually the most extreme form of political engagement.

The Rohith connection?

A master’s student from the Hindi department, who was standing alone on the edge of the crowd of students gathered at the academic block, told me in a quiet voice that the police should not have been brought into disagreement between students. “This is a disagreement between students, even ABVP students are JNU students, why have they sent the police?” the student said. “I don’t agree with some of the slogans that were shouted [on Feburary 9]. But how can they arrest students for a slogan? I think because JNUSU supported Rohith Vemula and the government is looking bad because of Rohith Vemula, all these things – Siachen deaths, slogans etc., are being combined to attack JNU students.”

But, this is not the first time that the ABVP has acted in what might be a less-than-straightforward and collegial manner, and the BJP government has lent it active support. When wardens in JNU shut down a “havan” in a hostel room as a fire hazard, ABVP students filed a police complaint of sexual harassment and hurting religious sentiments against a Christian faculty member present. A university fact-finding committee has proven the claims false, yet a court case continues. At IIT Madras, a letter from the Human Resource Development ministry based on an “anonymous” complaint got the Ambedkar Study Circle banned. In Hyderabad, it was an ABVP student’s complaint to the same ministry via a BJP member of Parliament, and a court case his family filed, that escalated a campus students’ dispute into a battle between the BJP and non-ABVP students. This led the university administration to take disciplinary action against Rohith Vemula and his friends. In JNU this week, an ABVP complaint to the police and a BJP member of Parliament about a students’ dispute over slogans raised on campus unleashed the wrath of the union Home Minister against non-ABVP students.

ABVP vs the others

It is indicative of what the two sides in this battle represent that the ABVP massed non-student supporters from the neighbouring Munirka colony to protest against students inside JNU. It also held a demonstration at India Gate calling for the arrest of students in JNU.

The non-ABVP students have raised concerns about the police presence on their campus and against arbitrary arrests in the public spaces of the university. For the ABVP, this is clearly part of the Sangh Parivar’s battle to redefine the idea of India in which anyone who does not agree with them is a “desh drohi” or anti-national, but for the non-ABVP students, this is a battle for the rights of students at a university in India.

By bringing its clenched fist down on a university campus the government may be winning the battle of the airwaves, but it is not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of students in JNU.

“ABVP is always trying to say if you don’t agree with them you are anti-national, that is not a good argument,” said a woman, an undergraduate student from the School of Languages. She was one of a group of first-year undergraduates who have not joined the protests on campus because their parents told them not to. But they said they supported the protests in spirit because they felt Kumar’s arrest was wrong. “He is not the type to shout such slogans. Even if someone did, how can you put him in in jail?”

JNU legacy

The BJP and a segment of the media like to portray JNU as a hotbed of subversive political activity, or in the words of a BJP member, “a Maoist production factory”. This characterisation finds favour with those who watch aggressive television anchors shout their studio guests into submission or silence every night. But there is truth beyond television news.

A young woman from Assam, a first year MA student, tried to explain to me why she and her friends were going to join a student and faculty protest at the administrative block in JNU. “Look, you must understand, it was our dream to study in JNU,” she said. “Now we are finally here, and they are telling us that in JNU they teach us about terrorism, that we support terrorists! They have sent the police to arrest students! They are saying this university we worked hard to enter is a bad place and we are bad people. That is why we are going.”


There is a video now online of Kanhaiya Kumar, the students union president, who is spending this weekend in police remand. The video is an eloquent young man’s impassioned affirmation of the idea of India that was created through the struggle for independence, of democratic principles, the value of the Constitution and a denunciation of the “constitution written in Nagpur” (the home of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

He clearly does not need lessons in nationalism from his political opponents. But his political opponents and our central government, however, could do with lessons in citizenship, how democracy functions, and on what universities are.

In a democracy a State does not intervene in the functioning of a university where life and limb are secure. Universities are not factories where people are beaten into identikit followers of state ideologies, but sanctuaries where young people can think, argue, debate and become the active questioning citizens that make democracies thrive.


Uber CEO Kalanick to Offer Startup Tips at IIT-Bombay

Uber CEO Kalanick to Offer Startup Tips at IIT-Bombay on January 19

Travis Kalanick, the co-founder and CEO of taxi-hailing service Uber, the most valuable start-up, will be in the city next week to address students of IIT-Bombay and share his own success story.

Kalanick, on his maiden trip to India, is among other top executives who will be in town to take part in the government’s Start-up India event scheduled for January 16.

He will be sharing the stage with over 40 CEOs and founders of start-ups, including SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, at IIT-B, one of the country’s premier centres for start-up incubation.

Kalanick will be addressing the students on January 19.

Uber is also partnering with ‘Invest India’, an initiative under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, and has already launched ‘UberExchnage’, a start-up mentorship programme.

The five-year-old US taxi aggregator, which is valued at $70 billion (roughly Rs. 4,67,856 crores), had announced last year it would invest $1 billion (roughly Rs. 6,683 crores) to build its India business.

At IIT-Bombay, Kalanick will speak to entrepreneur hopefuls on how to build a business, drawing parallels from his own entrepreneurial journey, and “what it takes to build the world’s fastest-growing start-up”.

The session is expected to see an attendance of over 2,500 students, start-up enthusiasts and local entrepreneurs.

Uber had a shaky start in the country after one of its drivers was arrested for raping a woman passenger in December 2014. The company is also under regulatory glare for alleged predatory pricing and business practices in many other countries.

Following these developments, the company has been investing heavily in safety measures in all markets, including India, Uber India President Amit Jain had said earlier.

Uber India has a driver base of over 1.5 lakh and is growing at about 40 per cent every month.

The company is up against Ola, the country’s top taxi aggregator. The Bhavish Aggarwal-led Ola has raised $1.3 billion (roughly Rs. 8,688 crores) of funds from major investors with a valuation of around $5 billion (roughly Rs. 3,3418 crores).

Globally, Uber’s rival Lyft announced last week that General Motors (GM) had partnered it to launch ‘self-driving’ cars. The American auto giant had invested $500 million in Lyft as part of a $1-billion round funding.


Why no book-buying expedition can still match a visit to the Kolkata Book Fair

Why no book-buying expedition can still match a visit to the Kolkata Book Fair
Photo Credit: IANS
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I had been warned about the dust time and again. Magazine articles, friends, all warned, bhishon dhulo (awfully dusty)! So I was prepared for the 2016 Kolkata Book Fair to be something akin to the Thar Desert. What I had not expected, however, was the music. And the public announcements. But more on that later. First, a few necessary facts about the Kolkata Book Fair, or Boi Mela, as everyone knows it.

An annual affair, the Kolkata Book Fair runs for 12 days from the end of January to the second Sunday of February. Now in its 40th year, it has seen various ups and downs, including a devastating fire (the fair was back and running in three days though one person died of a heart attack and over 100,000 books were destroyed), a major shift in venue, rains and such cataclysms. It’s one of the largest retail book fairs in the world (as opposed to trade fairs like Frankfurt and London). Such facts aside, it has remained an important part of the city’s social and cultural calendar because, well, Bengalis and books and kaalchar, and the fact that it melds “books” and “fair” spectacularly.

Ghosts of Boi Mela past

I had last been to the fair more than a decade ago, when it was still held at the Maidan – that massive patch of green in the heart of the city. From that era I held an abiding memory of long queues, where people waited patiently (maybe not so patiently sometimes) to enter the stalls of major English and Bengali publishers.

I had felt privileged and very relieved since I worked in a publishing house that was one of these hot destinations and so I could safely enter the stall as and when I pleased without a thirty-minute wait. I had even manned a few counters and convinced buyers to pick up books of my choice.

This time I was there purely as a visitor and I intended to make the best use of the one day I would get for this. That brings me back to the music. Soon after entering the Milan Mela ground, and while I was just about getting my bearings on which way to head, the Boi Mela Song started playing.

Yes, those capital letters are deliberate. It’s a song exhorting every Calcuttan worth their salt to visit the fair. The rest of the lyrics have now buried themselves somewhere in my brain under all the other noise, and all I remember is a cheerful warbling of “boi mela boi mela”. Doesn’t sound so bad, but as it accompanies you to every stall you visit, or when you sit awhile to rest the feet and tired shoulders, or when you are buying a much needed cup of tea or some ice cream, then there comes upon oneself a great desire to swat the song away like a pesky fly.

Sometimes it would stop. To be replaced by other songs – Tagore’s songs, aka Rabindrasangeet, and The Beatles – or poetry recitations. And when those stopped there would be a kindly voice telling you not to litter, that the fair had participants from all over the country and that there was a free shuttle service from Park Circus to the mela venue if you wanted it. I later noticed that this song was being played at many traffic signals too, so it basically accompanied you wherever you went in the city.

Song notwithstanding, I plunged into the maze of halls, each named after a famous litterateur and then on to the stalls which were out in the open. Discounted books, used books, brand new books, books in Hindi, they all started popping up on my path. I asked the Hindi stall person what kind of business he was hoping for. He shrugged, it was early days yet, the number of people reading in Hindi wasn’t that many, but there was enough for his company to set up shop and he hoped to do good enough business. He refused to be more specific.

I soon made my first buys at Bookline. It had books at huge discounts as well as those selling at almost the printed price. As I browsed, I heard someone yelling “Madam, madam!” I looked up to see an ex-colleague waving frantically. Cut to ten minutes of exchanging news and gossip and discussion about the state of the book industry and where does one go next in one’s career. We agreed we were going to live and die among books and in the publishing business.

With that cheerful thought, I moved on from hall to hall. Taking up a large space, Patra Bharati had a big range of books for children too. I gravitated towards those and spent time leafing through many collections of comics. There were the old Bengalu favourites like Handa Bhonda, Nante Fante (also in English, which I bought) and a detective series named Black Diamond whom I had not encountered earlier. The cover was dramatic enough with a man standing in front of an onrushing train and held much promise of action and adventure.

Brewing something else

By now the buys were enough to start weighing the shoulders down so I wandered over to the tea stall. There my friend and I were greeted with great enthusiasm by a bevy of people. They had a new variety of a paper tea cup that held the tea bag within it. You can buy one cup for twenty rupees – and get two more cups FREE using that same cup, we were informed by all those standing around and whom I had taken to be customers like us.

There was much questioning and answering on how we wanted our teas and finally with the nicely warm cups in hand we sat down to refuel for a bit. Appropriately, a stall selling jute bags had a very ugly bag with this wonderful quote from Tagore printed on it: “Come oh come, ye tea-thirsty restless ones, the kettle boils, bubbles and sings musically.”

A largish Bangladesh pavilion appeared soon in front of me. It had a number of small stalls and I could only marvel at my ignorance about Bangladeshi writing. There were some interesting and good looking books for children by contemporary writers here, including the ubiquitous Humayun Ahmed. I, however, had a fit of nostalgia and picked up a slim hardbound edition of Leo Tolstoy’s stories for children translated into Bengali with their original black and white drawings. It reminded me of the Russian books we read as children and the drawings themselves were beautiful. It cost a princely sum of seventy-five rupees.

More wandering and an ice cream later I panicked realising I was yet to visit the big stalls of Ananda Publishers, Dey’s Publishing and a few more. I hotfooted into those. Deys was already full enough to have just some elbow room. I browsed a book on Banglar Pakhi (The Birds of Bengal), recoiled at large stacks of the writings of such luminaries as Tagore and JC Bose and Upendrakishore Ray arranged into worthy topics like science and social studies. My buy here – Dadabhaier Deyala (Dadabhai’s Mischief) by Gaganendranath Tagore, and illustrated by him.

At Dey’s, while moving from one section to the next, I stopped at the section on books on cinema. Near me, stood an old gentleman in a dhoti and shawl and carrying a jhola. He waited patiently till the person at the counter was free to attend to him and asked for (what seemed to me) an obscure book on the zamindari system and land rights in Bengal. The boys needed only a few minutes to locate it (perhaps it wasn’t so obscure after all). Their buyer stood and leisurely turned the pages of the thick book for a while before telling them to bill it.

Start-ups at play

Outside, every semblance of winter had disappeared, the sun was hammering in. As I stood wondering which way to head next and tried to make sense of the Fair directory and map (the stalls don’t always follow each other numerically) I found a boy of about 10 at my side holding a sheaf of newsletters. The small publications and newsletters are all over the place, each being offered by someone with an accompanying explanation of why it was produced and by whom. I had already paid five rupees for one by a LGBT rights organisation.

This boy, part of a children’s drama troupe in north Kolkata was offering the newsletter called Boi Melar Diary that consisted of short pieces by him and his friends on their experiences at the book fair. As I stopped to talk to him, immediately 3-4 others gathered around. He handed out the newsletter to all and when one started to walk off with it, called after him saying, Eta free na! (It’s not for free!)

Priced at ten rupees each, he and a few more of his friends were selling these to raise funds for their troupe. What plays have you performed? Dakghar, Obak Jolpaan, Lokkhoner Shaktishel he reeled off a list of names. And are people buying the newsletter? Yes, he said proudly, he had sold twenty already, this was their first day and the weekend would see lots of visitors. I hoped they would cover the printing cost of the newsletter and make some more, as I bought a copy.

The smell of popcorn and the calls to come taste some chaat were building up, clashing with my old friend the boi mela song. My shoulder was telling me to call it a day, as was the call for some water and food from the stomach. I headed back to the gate making my way past the artists who had set up their tables and tarps on the ground. A man waylaid me to try out churans and to buy greeting cards from his “NGO”. What does your NGO do, I asked.Lokeder shahajjo (helping people) was the supremely vague reply.

With that ended my one day at the boi mela after a decade. I learnt later that on the Sunday of the following weekend 10 lakh people had visited the Fair. I am hundreds of miles away in another part of the country now, and I wish the many lakhs who will visit till the last day on February 7 a suitably intellectual, bodily wearying and aurally challenging time. And no, there wasn’t that much of dhulo.


The first autobiographical novel by an Indian woman writing in English was both beautiful and profound

The first autobiographical novel by an Indian woman writing in English was both beautiful and profound
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I began this series last summer with the first book written in English by an Indian. So when it was time to read the first book of 2016 for my bottom shelf, I picked another old volume that enjoys a similar honour. This time, it’s by an author who is credited with being the first woman novelist in English from India.

From 1887 to 1888, the Madras Christian College Magazine serialised a story in English called Saguna. It was an autobiographical novel by Krupabai Satthianadhan, a young woman in her twenties. In 1895, a year after her untimely death, Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life was published posthumously by Srinivasa, Varadachari and Co. in Madras. The book was presented to Queen Victoria who, upon reading it, was so impressed that she asked for more books by the same author.

The novel was read widely both in India and England at the time, and received glowing reviews recommending the book “for its high moral tone.” But then, for the next hundred and odd years, it disappeared from the public eye. It was only in 1998 that Oxford University Press decided to reissue it with an introduction by editor Chandani Lokuge, and a new title: Saguna: The First Autobiographical Novel by an Indian Woman.

An autobiographical novel is defined as a work that merges fiction and autobiographical elements. Saguna captures factual details about the author’s life as well as the prevailing mood of the time with the help of wonderful descriptions, vivid character sketches, and poetic language. As is evident from the original title, it has predominantly Christian overtones, and as the new title indicates, it also deals heavily with “the woman question.”

From life to literature

The book opens with the author stating her intention to “present a faithful picture of the experiences and thoughts of a simple Indian girl.” In the beginning we come to know the autobiographical details, which are very interesting given Krupabai’s education and learning at a time when both were uncommon for women. Here are some of the basics.

Saguna/Krupabai was one of 14 siblings, born in Ahmednagar (then in the Bombay Presidency) to the first Brahmin converts to Christianity. Her father died early, her three elder sisters were married, and she was left at home with four boys for company. It was the eldest brother, Bhasker, who exercised a powerful and permanent influence on the young Saguna.

His death, when Saguna was thirteen, devastated her. In order to recover, she spent some time under the care of two European women who introduced her to British ways, and subsequently attended boarding school in Bombay, where she proved to be a brilliant student and developed an interest in medicine. She was even awarded a scholarship to attend medical school in England, but was not allowed to go due to her poor health and prevailing patriarchal attitudes.

She then entered Madras Medical College, the first medical college in India to admit women, but, unfortunately, was forced to give up her medical career because of depression and ill health. In 1881, she met and fell in love with a reverend’s son, Samuel Sattianadhan, who had just returned from university in England. The novel ends with their marriage, but in her own life Krupabai went on to become a teacher and writer.

A firm believer in girls’ education, she taught in zenanas and opened a small school for Muslim girls. Her essays, poems, travelogues, and fiction originally appeared in local newspapers, journals, and magazines, and were posthumously published in Miscellaneous Writings of Krupabai Sattianadhan. Interestingly, her second novel was called Kamala: A Story of Hindu Life.

Representing a new voice

In her Preface to the OUP edition, Lokuge discusses the persona of the “Indian New-Woman” who emerged during the late nineteenth century, “as a subsequence of British colonialist influences which included educational and socio-religious reforms. Defying institutional patriarchal ideologies that enforced her domesticity and subjectivity, the New-Woman sought greater equality between men and women.”

Sattianadhan begins her book with an account of her mother’s early life. At the time when we first meet Saguna’s mother Radha, she lives with an aging father and a helpless little brother in her older brother’s house. Her sister-in-law is a mean and snide woman, given to fits of violent temper. Radha slaves for her day and night and quietly bears any beatings she is given. Sattianadhan takes pains to point out that it was not just Radha but also other little girls who were thus forced to do housework for their families.

It is this early portrait of what young Hindu girls’ lives were like that paves the way for the two predominant themes in the book, those of the Christian faith and the treatment of women. “Poor girls? What can we expect from such impoverished, stunted minds?” asks Krupabai.

“The refined, civilised mind shudders or looks down with pity on the exhibition as a relic of savagery; and yet these are the daughters of India whose lot is considered as not needing any improvement by many of my countrymen who are highly cultured and who are supposed to have benefitted from Western civilisation.”

Radha’s misfortunes continue after she is forced to go and live with her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law is a stern and pompous woman. Radha is depicted as a helpless and sensitive girl who is completely dependent on other people and has no voice or agency. The two factors that cause her such distress are her sex and the religion she has been born into. Here is an excerpt about her mother-in-law’s treatment of Radha that combines both ideas:

“Her treatment of Radha from an outsider’s point of view was indeed objectionable, but we must make allowance for a Hindu notion of a daughter-in-law who is regarded as a lying, screaming wretch, ever ready to work any amount of ill to a mother-in-law, stealing the affections, when she can, of a good and dutiful son, turning like a serpent on those that have fed and clothed her, trying every means to get the power which the mother-in-law wields.”

From despair to faith

It is against this backdrop that we are introduced to a force that according to the author has the power to rescue people from oppression. One night when she receives a harsh beating by her mother-in-law and also learns of her beloved little brother’s death, Radha tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. In short, this is her darkest hour. It is on this night that she sees her husband, with whom so far she has had very little interaction, engrossed in Christian prayer. “The words that he uttered seemed to hold her with a power and her whole soul was absorbed in listening. The words fell on her ears with untold balm and healing.”

Radha’s husband Harichandra is an intellectual, well-read young man from a wealthy and “remarkably religious” Brahmin family known for its adherence to high morals and religious rituals. For him and his family Christianity is “the religion of the mlechas.” And yet, following a period of existential crisis and soul searching, it is to this religion that Harichandra turns. The impact on the Brahmin community, needless to say, is scandalous.

But Harichandra’s life is transformed into one of pure bliss. “Here was the infinite revealed in all its perfection, thus showing the possibility of an indissoluble union between God and man…he seemed lifted out of himself, up above all the world. A wild, delirious joy shot through his frame, and all his heart glowed with a new-found happiness. He could bear anything, suffer anything. All difficulties vanished.”

From this moment on in the book, faith becomes an integral theme, and passages of similar grandiose prose extolling the individual’s sublime connection with a higher spiritual power recur. Harichandra is the first in the family to experience the moment, but certainly not the last.

As good as a man?

Initially, Radha is “rebellious and uncontrollable,” refusing to accept the Christians and sahibs, and clinging to her festivals and fasts. But, soon, she too begins to doubt her belief in “shastras and idols.” Eventually, “the calm of the Christian Sabbath, the call for morning and evening prayers, her husband’s devotion, and the great forbearance shown to her ignorant, superstitious ways by those whom she felt were superior to her – these and many other things changed her attitude towards the new religion, and gradually she succumbed to the strong influences of Christianity.” The new faith is shown to be liberating. “There was now no feeling of constraint between Harichandra and Radha. The unnatural fetters of custom had fallen away…”

The children of Harichandra and Radha are devout Christians and even do missionary work in villages, spreading the word of god. The passages that deal with this subject are abstract and lofty and almost sound like sermons. In contrast, the sections dealing with “the woman question” are more concrete and rooted in the characters’ temperaments. Unlike her mother’s gentle and submissive nature, Saguna’s is a lot more feisty and independent. Even as a child, she refuses to accept the traditional place reserved for girls, and wants to be just like her brothers, something they don’t take to kindly.

“ ‘But she wanted to do exactly like us,’ said one of my brothers impetuously in self-defence.

‘And am I not as good as a boy? I can do as many sums as they,’ I said as I came out hastily, afraid of losing ground, ‘and I can read and write too.’ ”

Not only does Saguna read and write, but she does it rather well. Bhasker is the one who encourages her and shows her what books to read, and tells her about famous men. This is the start of a remarkable education and a lifelong love of learning. Later in the book, Saguna proclaims, “I would now throw aside the fetters that bound me and be independent. I had chafed under the restraints and the ties which formed the common lot of women, and I longed for an opportunity to show that a woman is in no way inferior to a man. How hard it seemed to my mind that marriage should be the goal of woman’s ambition, and that she should spend her days in the light trifles of a home life, live to dress, to look pretty, and never know the joy of independence and intellectual work.” Towards the end of the novel, Saguna turns down three marriage proposals in a single scene in favour of independence and a career.

However, her desire for independence does not prevent Saguna from falling in love with Samuel. While the novel ends there, in real life Krupabai went on to give up her career in medicine, and live a fairly conventional married life, following her husband wherever his work took him.

According to Lokuge, Krupabai, despite all her rebellions, remained, at heart, a dependent woman. As a child she idolised her older brother on whom she was totally dependent intellectually and psychologically. Later, she became dependent on her husband.

“She is torn apart by having to assert that she is ‘as good as a man,’ even while admitting the inbuilt compulsion to succumb to the tradition of being “only a woman.” It’s not just in this regard but overall that Sattianadhan displays strong internal conflict between opposing forces.

An internal battlefield

On the one hand, she appears to adopt Western ways of life, beginning with a Western faith. Hers seems to be a colonialist view of things. On the other hand, she consciously critiques Western ways of life. The author herself admits to these moments of self-division. In my opinion, these add a layer of complexity to the book, which, we should not forget, is not just meant to be an evangelical treatise or a manifesto of women’s rights. It is, above all, a novel.

Lokuge calls this book “a literary masterpiece of its time.” It is not hard to see why. This slim volume is full of beautiful language and characters that come alive on the page. Places and scenes are described evocatively. In contrast to the lofty language in the Christian sections, it’s when Sattianadhan writes about people – whom she no doubt knew personally – that her empathy and insight make the scenes quite moving.

For instance, the first time we see Radha, she is standing with her friend by the ghats in the town of Shivagunga. “The two formed a little world in themselves, amidst the large bustling world around them. None knew their feelings, their joys, their sorrows.”

This book would not be half as interesting as it is if it were not for the fact that it is a more or less accurate rendition of the author’s own life. Every now and then, she reflects on the nature of her memory, and how the passage of time has altered her perspective. These not only offer a window into Krupabai’s soul but also make the character of Saguna more introspective and reliable.

Before he got fatally ill, Bhasker often told Saguna that his greatest desire was to do great things. He once pleaded with his sister, “speak boldly to your countrywomen.” Despite Saguna’s own early passing at the age of 32, she has left behind a literary legacy that few Indian readers might be aware of today. In this book we have a fascinating record of an educated, Anglicised Indian woman’s experiences and perspective on issues of national importance towards the end of the nineteenth century. Surely, the adored older brother would have approved.