The blurb at the back of the book completely belies what lies inside 215 pages novel. I was taken unaware when I finished the book, waiting to let it all sink in. the blurb reads:
” When a girl child is born into the zamindar family of a village called Veerganj, she brings no cheer to anyone around. She is only just accepted by her family. But little Gayatri has set her rules early: she is not content with mere acceptance . She has taken after her father and demands attention,which she manages to get, and in ample measure. But when the same attention is denied to her as a woman- as a beautiful woman-what does she do? Just about anything. It’s her life after all.”
My first reaction was that it’s a book that must speak of woman’s liberation or a girl’s fight for self. But I was not prepared for what I read between the pages.
No matter how much we try and ignore or try to push it behind curtains or under the carpet, the truth is that the obsolete customs of caste biases, untouchability and the want for male child is very much in existence. It did not quite come to an end, it’s best to say it has been marginalized and forced to retreat from the face of urban India. But they can still be found in remote, far-off villages that are rigid and unbending in religious and social traditions. The Britishers may have left our land centuries ago, but we as a society are yet to fully wake up. In these remote interior villages there are millions of peoples labelled outcastes or untouchables, the lesser human beings. They are subjected to every conceivable form of discrimination. The high castes grade cows and snakes higher than their own fellow beings.
In urban areas it happens under cover of money. The higher castes who would never dream of touching them, are willing to work with them and under them, given the prospect of earning profit, read money. Though abolished by the constitution and the practice punishable by law, it still continues to play havoc with innocent lives.
These people suffered long and are still suffering. They did not raise their voice for the fear of retribution. Their counterparts in cities have survived and some of them are thriving as well. But those in the village never raised their eyes to look up, being employed as labour and menial hands, they feared loss of job and means of sustenance.
The government has set up panchayats for them where they can go for help and address their problems. But little did they know that the same enforcement agencies which should deliver justice have been bought and pockets warmed with money. These agencies cater to the interest of the high castes and are also manned by them. The Utopian dream did not deliver on ground. Poverty, illiteracy, caste system, political interference, factionalism, money and muscle power all grazed the dream flat.
It is under this premise that Gayatri’s story unfolds. She is born into a zamindar family. As a girl child she is unwanted and only just accepted. But she soon wraps herself around her father’s heart displaying the very same traits as her father. She is bold, fierce, independent and assertive. As a child her whims and fancies are brushed aside. Reality of dawns upon her when she grows up into a beautiful woman. Her movements are restricted and it slowly sinks into her what caste biases are. As a girl she has no say in how her life unfolds. Her father is a well known face in the village of Veerganj. To raise his position a bar higher in the society he decided to get Gayatri married to the son of a famous politician with a hold in state capital. The father completely disregards his daughter choice in the matter. Even when Gayatri hurts herself, she is asked to maintain composure and see that she will financially well settled. It did not matter if she like the boy or not. Matters escalate and go out of hand when she seeks help from Ghanshyam, an untouchable. She lets loose a can of worms and opens up Pandora’s box of troubles. Her father’s fury meets no match in deciding her future. Things turn ugly leaving the family disoriented and fractured.
The characters are well rounded and life like. There are no caricatures, rather genuine creation. All the characters have a progression as the book climaxes, no one character remains stolid.
The book is absolutely transparent with respect to how society functions in the villages. The untouchables are cornered towards the borders of the villages. The dark side of the Indian villages is exposed and so is the farce in the name of legislation and justice, namely Panchayats. There is no savior for these people and they are trampled by those with money and power. Shekhar Mehra has given a scathing account of how these people suffer, the tortures, the punishment and the suffering. The author has been true to the village life in depicting the crude pleasure the muscle power enjoyed while exercising their strength on womenfolk. Stripping the of their dignity, leaving them stark naked to all eyes, one can easily feel the humiliation and dejection of the people. The simplicity and candour with which Shekahr has written the novel, one would feel as if it’s recounting of a real incident.
If you have faint heart and gory scenes of violence and bloodshed make you queasy then do not pick this book. There are many scenes which recount extreme violence, savagery, brutishness and sadism.