Desire and Despoliation: A recent English translation brings Shivani's 1978 novel 'Bhairavi' to new readers
Shivani was the pen name under which the writer Gaura Pant wrote from the 1960s to the 1990s, her fiction often first appearing in serialised form in Hindi magazines. Bhairavi was her fourth novel, published in instalments in Saptahik Hindustan and then as a book in 1978.
Bhairavi: The Runaway begins in medias res, with the protagonist slowly coming back to consciousness in a room she does not recognise, surrounded by strangers whose presence terrifies her. An “old hag” with a man's dhoti wrapped around “her enormous stomach” and her bare breasts are “covered in blood-red sandalwood paste”; a younger woman with a face “as black as that of an African”; an ash-smeared naked sadhu with bloodshot eyes and half-grey, half golden dreadlocks — these are characters that might throw anyone off. Certainly our heroine Chandan, a conventionally pretty, fair young woman whom we are to understand is 'from a good family', is scared as well as repelled.
Chandan's experience has the sensory overload of a nightmare: the semi-nakedness of those around her, the stale smell of chewing tobacco on the sanyasin's breath, the cave-like room filled with smoke, and occupied by rudraksha beads, marijuana chillums, a skull or two, and a live pet snake. And yet, what begins as a petrifying glimpse of otherness soon starts to feel arresting, even beautiful. Maya Didi has a sagging but once voluptuous body and a radiant face that “must have ensnared many men in its youth”; the “black girl” Charan has a laugh that “lit up her whole face”'; the guru's “divine face” is “like a light tearing into a room”. This ability to stay with what was initially frightening, to allow one's gaze to be transformed — perhaps this was the gift Shivani's writing gave her readers.
Shivani was the pen name under which the writer Gaura Pant wrote from the 1960s to the 1990s, her fiction often first appearing in serialised form in Hindi magazines. Bhairavi was her fourth novel, published in instalments in Saptahik Hindustan and then as a book in 1978. Shivani was hugely popular, but as far as I am aware, only some of her short stories have hitherto been translated into English: Trust and other stories (Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1985); Krishnakali and other stories (Trans. by Masooma Ali, Rupa & Co., 1995) and Apradhini: Women Without Men (Trans. by Ira Pande, HarperCollins, 2011). (Ira Pande is Shivani's daughter, who has also written a deeply personal biography of her mother called Diddi, 2005). Priyanka Sarkar, Bhairavi's English translator, suggests in her introduction that the reason Shivani wasn't as feted as her contemporaries because “she was seen as a writer of 'love stories' and not a chronicler of society”. Other than Bhairavi, I have only ever read Apradhini, but based on what I know about the Indian, specifically Hindi, literary universe, I'd extend Sarkar's point even further. Shivani was probably not feted by the Hindi establishment precisely because she was popular, particularly popular with women — and not with literary-minded ones.
Reading Bhairavi: The Runaway revealed the possible reasons for that vast popularity. First, the story is fast-paced. Second, the central characters are all women. Men, whether fathers, husbands, lovers or sons, are often absent, and when they do appear, they're fairly one-dimensional figures whose sole purpose seems to be to drive the plot forward. Third, there's a racy, almost overripe quality to the narrative — a sort of Indian Gothic that combines two of this country's abiding concerns: mothers worrying about their daughters, and a deep-rooted fascination with ascetics.
What brings these two disparate threads together? A preoccupation with sex and sexuality — all the more powerful for being almost unspoken.
So on the one hand, we are told the backstory of Chandan, which is linked to the further backstory of her mother Rajrajeshwari — both revolving around the need to keep young women's sexuality in check, lest they lose their prized virginity and become unmarriageable. On the other hand we are plunged into the world of the Aghori ascetic, seeing through Chandan's eyes this storied space of Shiv-bhakt sadhus whose austerities, like those of other sects with an affinity to Tantrism, involve rituals that would be considered shocking by most ordinary Hindus. The 'ideal' Aghori embraces what others consider taboo — living off the cremation ground, drinking not only liquor but urine, consuming not just flesh but human corpses, and having intercourse with a female partner who is preferably infertile — the withholding of semen and the non-reproductiveness of the act being crucial. As the anthropologist Jonathan Parry argues in his classic study Death in Banaras, the Aghori route to siddhi (supernatural powers) not just allows meat-eating and intoxicants and sex, but makes them the very stuff of their sadhana (ritual practice).“For the tantrics, that which binds you — desire — is also what will set you free,” writes Madhavi Menon in her delightful book Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India.
Bhairavi offers the fascinated lay reader a glimpse of this tabooed universe, but Shivani was no anthropologist, and her Aghoris don't stick to the rules. Yes, the guru and his prime disciple Maya Didi do wander the cremation ground in search of enlightenment, seeking to attain mastery over life by surrounding themselves with death. But Shivani's narrative cannot go the whole hog. She makes their relationship non-sexual — or rather, unconsummated: Charan describes seeing them once at the cremation ground, “sitting across each other like a snake couple”, with Maya saying to the guru: “You are my only Shiva, Guru, and I am your Shiva Shakti”. Somehow, by keeping any actual sex out of it, Shivani manages to turn the relationship into something filled with sexual-romantic energy, even danger: a classic double bind that would be recognisable to all her readers.
Meanwhile, in the ordinary world, marriage continues to rule the roost, offering the only legitimate space for sexuality — if you're very lucky, some happiness is a possibility. But even marriage cannot protect women from the constant fear of sexual despoliation: Bhairavi has not one but two moments when (the fear of) rape becomes the motor of the plot. A woman can go from the grihasth (domestic) universe to the world of supposed renunciates, Shivani suggests implicitly, but she won't ever be free of this fear — if not on her own behalf, then on behalf of younger women. That's a bleak thought: one can only hope it's a little less true in 2020 than it was in 1978.
Bhairavi: The Runaway | By Shivani | Translated by Priyanka Sarkar
Simon and Schuster/Yoda Press, 2020 | 139 pages