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Review: My Family by Mahadevi Varma, translated by Ruth Vanita

Known for her scholarship and fiction highlighting stories of queer love, Ruth Vanita has now translated poet and prose writer Mahadevi Varma’s autobiographical work Mera Parivaar (1972) from Hindi to English. Titled My Family, this book will be most loved by those for whom the idea of a chosen family is not limited to fellow humans; it also embraces birds and animals.

107pp, ₹399; Penguin

In the introduction, Vanita writes, “Mera Parivaar (My Family) has never before been translated into English. It is the most neglected of her works, hardly mentioned by biographers and critics.” It seems quite unusual that such a profound and heartwarming piece of literature authored by someone who is “commonly acknowledged as the greatest 21st century woman poet in Hindi” has remained obscure. Her rediscovery and translation is, therefore, nothing short of a public service.

Varma had built an aviary to house the birds and animals she looked after. Ruth Vanita writes, “Mahadevi’s concern for entrapped, hunted, and tortured animals is related to a concern for all those who are oppressed and exploited. The 19th century was the period that gave rise to modern movements for laws to prevent cruelty to several groups and to win rights for them. These groups include women, children, manual labourers, factory workers, prisoners, the poor, the mentally ill, and animals.”

The book is divided into seven chapters. Each of the first six chapters focuses on one particular bird or animal in Varma’s chosen family – her peacock Neelkanth, her squirrel Gillu, her doe Sona, her rabbit Durmukh, her cow Gaura, and her dog Neelu. The seventh chapter is about three creatures – Varma’s mongoose Nikki, her dog Rosie, and her mare Rani. Before these chapters comes Varma’s moving preface, which tells the story of how she came to rescue birds and animals in the first place.

Varma spent her formative years at a boarding school in Allahabad. One of her favourite activities was to linger in an orchard of mango, guava, lime and jackfruit trees. Soon after the day’s classes were over, she would sit on the boughs of the mango tree with a book in hand. Gradually, she began interacting with the woman gardener and her children. The gardener looked after a speckled goat and a yellow-beaked white hen who became Varma’s playmates.

She was thrilled when there were five new chickens. Describing her joy, she writes, “I saw the white hen, with puffed-out wings, accompanying her five children who looked like balls of silk-cotton. Like most Hindu homes, ours had never reared hens, so those chicks were such a novelty to me that I forgot my other companions and centred my attention on them.” When one of these chickens is taken away to be cooked, she cries inconsolably and reports the matter to the school matron.

Varma writes, “That day, I got the baby chicken back and returned him to his mother. But after that, a nameless fear took hold of me. If I could not keep track of the numbers and identifying marks of my non-human friends, anyone could take them away. I had no other way to prove that I was their protector.” The chicken was named Munga (Coral) and that day onwards, the child Mahadevi began writing down the names, colours, special marks and traits of all the animals and birds that she cared for.

The author’s affinity for animals and birds is evident throughout the book. She considers their lives to be as precious as that of humans, and is willing to go to great lengths to ensure their safety. This book is reminiscent of a verse from Shantideva’s 8th century text Bodhicharyavatara (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life translated by Raji Ramanan): “Gladly do I rejoice/ In the virtue that relieves the misery/ Of all those in unfortunate states/ And that gives happiness to the suffering.”

Mahadevi Varma in a photograph dated 15 August 2001 (HT Photo)
Mahadevi Varma in a photograph dated 15 August 2001 (HT Photo)

It is touching to note that Padma Vibhushan and Jnanpith awardee Varma, who was one of the four pillars of the Chhayavad movement in Hindi poetry, took this inventory-keeping very seriously as a genre of writing. “All my memoirs have sprouted, budded, and bloomed from this childhood prose expression of mine,” she writes. Each creature is not only her child but also her muse. She does not use the language of “animal rights” in this book but her portraits of these beings are so loving that it would be almost impossible for any reader to not view them with respect and kindness.

About Sona, the doe who arrived at Varma’s doorstep as an orphaned baby in a near-dead condition, she writes, “After collecting a milk bottle, glucose, goat’s milk and so on, the difficult enterprise of raising her began. Her mouth was so small that the nipple of the bottle would not fit into it. Also, she did not know how to drink. Gradually, she learnt not only to drink but also to recognize the bottle.” Over time, Sona learnt to snuggle up to the leg of Varma’s bed every night.

Vanita’s introduction provides the the philosophical and intellectual context of Varma’s actions. She reveals that Varma once considered and rejected the option of becoming a Buddhist nun but she became a devoted follower of MK Gandhi. Vanita writes, “Gandhi’s thinking about animals was shaped by Hindu and Jain philosophy but also by his association with vegetarian and anti-vivisection movements when he was a student in London.”

Varma was the principal, and later the vice chancellor, of the Prayag Mahila Vidyapeeth. Most of the birds and animals that she had rescued were from Allahabad itself. Neelkanth, the peacock, was freed from a cage in a market when he was a baby. Gillu, the squirrel, was found in a flowerpot. It was a baby that had fallen out of a nest and two crows were wounding him with their beaks. Durmukh, the rabbit, was brought to Varma’s house by a gardener who had saved him from being eaten by a cat.

Varma could not have done the work of caregiving all by herself. She mentions Bhaktin, her housekeeper, in the book. Varma also employed others for various tasks, especially when she travelled outside Allahabad for work or went on pilgrimages to different holy sites in India. As Ruth Vanita mentions in the introduction, all these workers were also considered as part of Varma’s family. She did not enjoy housework but she occasionally liked making snacks for herself and her visitors.

The book has a few lovely black-and-white illustrations by Antra K to help you visualize all these creatures but Varma’s word-pictures will make you feel a profound tenderness for each of them. For instance, she describes how Neelu, her dog, used to take care of sparrow babies that fell to the ground during their unsuccessful attempts to fly. She writes, “Sometimes, to get very small nestlings restored to their nest, he would bring them to me, holding them gently in his mouth.”

It is particularly amusing to see how Varma records the interactions between the inmates of the aviary. About Neelkanth, the peacock, she writes, “His love for these creatures was just as extraordinary as his punitive measures. He would often sit down in the dust with his wings spread out, and they all would play catch-as-catch-can in his long tail and thick wings.” Once, Neelkanth even saved a rabbit from being killed by a snake, and became the hero of the aviary.

Readers who are inclined to pick up this book for the cuteness factor should know that she also writes about how the animals met their end. These are not sanitized tales.

Ruth Vanita (Courtesy the publisher)
Ruth Vanita (Courtesy the publisher)

This book also mentions Varma’s cats Chitra and Godhuli, her dogs Hemant and Basant, her peahen Radha, and her dog Flora, but they do not have entire chapters dedicated to them. They make guest appearances, giving readers a broader sense of the chosen family that Varma had created.

Readers who are curious about how Varma came to have this unconventional family will find their answers in Ruth Vanita’s introduction: “Her father conformed to the custom of his community by marrying her off when she was nine, mainly because he wanted to fulfill his dying father’s wish to see her married.” As a child bride, Varma wept continuously at the few days she spent with her in-laws, so they sent her home before she was expected to leave. She was jubilant.

As an adult, she was supposed to go and live with the in-laws once again. Varma refused to participate in the gauna ceremony being organized for her departure. Her father was struck with remorse. He told his daughter that, if she wanted to divorce her husband and get remarried, he would support that move. Vanita writes, “Christians and Muslims could legally divorce at the time, but Hindus could not.” Her father offered to convert along with her but she did not want to remarry.

This book could serve as a source of strength and inspiration to those who want to remain single or have families that do not fit into the moulds that they have been conditioned to see as normative. Through her introduction and her translation, Vanita does a commendable job of bringing readers this fascinating literary document of Varma’s “happy single life”, which was blessed by an astonishing variety of creatures who nurtured her as much as she nurtured them.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.

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