Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chander & Sudha by Dharamvir Bharati, translated by Poonam Saxena

Chander & Sudha
Dharamvir Bharati
Translated by Poonam Saxena (Hindi)
Original published 1949, I read 2015
351 pages, romance, social criticism

Many thanks to Penguin India for providing me with a review copy of this book. 

The setting: 1940s Allahabad, shortly after independence. A sleepy university town.

Chander is a Ph.D. student who is has a very close relationship with his supervisor and mentor Dr. Shukhla. He spends much of his time studying in the office at his supervisor's house and is considered part of the family. Dr. Shukhla's daughter, Sudha, has grown up with Chander; they have a playful relationship, teasing and joking with each other all the time. It's obvious to their friends that they are in love. They just haven't realized it yet.

Sudha's cousin Binti, whose wedding is coming up, comes to stay with them in Allahabad to help prepare for the ceremony. But suddenly Binti's mother and Sudha's father decide that Sudha, as the elder of the two girls, should get married first. Sudha refuses, stating that she does not want to get married and she would rather study further. But her father chooses a boy, a political activist that had once rescued him from a difficult situation. Chander takes it upon himself to convince Sudha to marry this man; in the end, he tricks her into promising that she will and forces her to keep that promise.

Then, after Sudha gets married, Chander doesn't know what to do. He becomes terribly angry and heartbroken, and starts to hate her for being someone else's wife. He falls into an emotional paralysis, trying to escape from the suffering. He writes to Sudha telling her not to contact him. None of this reduces his psychological anguish. The only thing that gives him a respite is having sex with an Anglo-Indian friend. But when he is reminded of his love for Sudha, he falls back into despair.

He realizes that he has made a huge mistake. But what can he do about it now?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the writing is gorgeous - especially the way Dharamvir-ji portrays the emotions of the characters in both their mental and physical manifestations. But on the other hand, Chander is an idiot. I found myself pausing every few pages wanting to hit him over the head with the (hardback) book I was reading. It's a mixed bag.


Dharamvir-ji is in his element when describing the physical and mental manifestations of the characters' emotions.  The most profound and realistic example is Sudha's emotions about getting married. Sudha's anxiety, terror, and stress at being forced to do something so against her nature are palpable. In Dharamvir-ji's description, it is obvious that her physical health rapidly deteriorates. She finds herself unable to eat or sleep, and she becomes emaciated and looks ill. Her once glossy hair becomes dry and crispy. It seems that she is descending into anorexia as a result of her depression.

From an objective viewpoint, her husband and his family are not so bad. Her husband is a good man and takes care of her when she's sick. She is not abused; in fact, her in-laws love her, especially when she takes over the family's religious duties from her mother-in-law. But being in this situation and in this relationship is so counter to her basic instincts and desires that it causes her a huge amount of stress. It is this inescapable, insufferable stress that ultimately leads to her decline in physical health and eventual death.

While Sudha's emotional turmoil is beautifully poignant, Chander's emotions demonstrate complete confusion caused mainly by society's ideas about love. As I said earlier, Chander is an idiot. At the beginning of the book, he is completely naive: he has noble ideas about how life should be, and about how a physical relationship is incompatible with a true, pure Platonic love. He believes that marrying Sudha would somehow sully their relationship by bringing sex into the picture. This is why he forces her to marry someone else: it is for Chander's own benefit - as a test of his resistance to temptation? - although he tries to convince himself that it is better for Sudha as well. So instead of thinking about what the affect of his actions would be on this person that he loves, he forces her to do something against her will as a way of proving that he really is as pure as he wants to be.

Yes, he really is that stupid.

After this decision causes him a huge amount of emotional torment, he finally begins to examine his ideas about love and sex - but only after he is spurred to do so by a madman who starts professing the same things! After some more soul searching and listening to the madman's opinions, Chander decides that women really do only want sex out of a relationship. Sudha, then, is an object of revulsion to him: she is not special, she is just another woman who wants a normal sexual relationship. And maybe she wants it with him, Chander, outside the bounds of marriage! (Chi chi chi chi chi.)  After he convinces himself that Sudha is actually a loathsome creature, he decides to begin having sex with a friend of his, using his emotional turmoil and the relief that sex gives him as an excuse to do so. If sex is all there is, then why not just go for it?

I was impressed by this frank discussion of sex and love in a book from 1949. That seemed really valuable, especially because Chander's ideas are demonstrated to be absolutely idiotic. But the sad part is that there are people who really do think like this, and who cause an enormous amount of suffering to those around them.

Women's freedom

The really unfortunate thing about this whole situation is that Sudha has no ability to change what she is told to do. Despite her family's social status, her father's education, and her own education level, she has no choice but to agree to the arranged marriage. She listens to Chander partially because she loves him that much, partially because she doesn't have much of a choice. Even after she had pleaded with her father to avoid marriage, he still sets up the match for her. She has no say in the matter.

And, in a heartbreaking conclusion, her husband tells Chander that they aren't a good match: he wanted a more intellectual, politically active wife, and Sudha doesn't fit the bill. So they are both stuck in a marriage that is not satisfying.

As a novel, this is a beautiful book. If you can stand Chander's stupidity, it's a good read, especially for the beautiful setting of a sleepy college town shortly after Indian independence. Recommended for anyone who enjoys a good psychological exploration.

Chander and Sudha can be purchased from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart, or wherever books are sold. 

Further Reading: 

"How to translate a favorite novel" by Poonam Saxena in the Hindustan Times

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