Book: The Girl with Questioning Eyes
Author: Neelesh Raghuwanshi
Translator: Deepa Jain Singh
Publisher: Permanent Black 2019
Pages: 344 pages
(Written by Sara Rai)
Born in 1969 in Ganj Basoda, a small town near Bhopal, Neelesh Raghuwanshi is known primarily as a poet, though she has written plays and worked as a scriptwriter for Doordarshan TV. The Girl with Questioning Eyes (Ek kasbe ke Notes) is her only work of fiction. She could be said to belong to the yatharthvadi or realist tradition of writing in Hindi, of which Premchand was an early practitioner. “I’m different…” is how Babli, the narrator describes herself, and one could say this about Raghuwanshi’s novel as well.
Reading The Girl with Questioning Eyes, one is struck by what the author does not do. She does not try to make the novel a mirror of society; there is no attempt at the fictional version of a sociological tract. If the novel seems all the same to be something of both, it appears to be organically and fluently so. Sticking to the ground and avoiding flights of fancy, Raghuwanshi closely follows the life and struggles of a lower middle class family in a kasba, where rules are strict and dreams small. This she does with a detached terseness, without sentimentality or melodrama. Her characters are not created to serve an agenda. By giving us seemingly insignificant details of the place and its people, the novel lets us see the kasba from up close.
On the Bombay-Benares railway line, the train halts at Ganj Basoda. The town, known for its grain market and stone quarries, resounds with noises from bylanes and bazaars. Its crisscrossing voices, the laughter and merriment, the trundling bullock-carts, the roaring motor-cycles and the chhook-chhooking trains — all create a universe of sound that make the novel not only a visual but an aural delight. Written in straightforward language (which in the Hindi version is layered with a generous sprinkling of Bundelkhandi), the novel, even as it describes ordinary everyday events, gets an odd raciness — you want to turn the pages quickly, know what happens next.
Babli, whose voice takes us through the novel, is the sixth of nine children — all girls except for the seventh, a boy — born to a wayside dhaba owner and his wife, called Bai and Kakka by the children. Kakka works hard daily, morning to night, to make enough money to meet the needs of his eleven-member family. A dhaba, such as he runs, differs from a hotel or restaurant not only in its clientele — drawn from various sections of the lower-middle class, but also in the function it performs. Located in the busy market, right by the bus stand from where most of its customers come, the dhaba is also a forum for public debate, where opinions about life and politics are aired and argued.
There is an endearing description of the one special set of clothes that Kakka wears once or twice a year, kept safely away in a box, jealously guarded by the older sisters. For most days he has two sets of lungi-vests — “The vests had a clear trajectory: first a couple of holes, then the holes developing into maps of countries, and finally the countries shrinking into strings that were more string than country.” He is devoted to the dhaba and firmly believes in honest labour, which, even if menial — he tells his daughters — is never something to be ashamed of. Generous and principled, frequently to his own disadvantage, he advises customers against over-ordering, often “turning a ten-buck customer into a four-buck customer.”
Kakka’s eyes well up with tears every time another daughter gets married and has to leave home for her in-laws’. Seeing the suffering of the older girls once they become daughters-in-law, he decides against marriage for the younger ones until he has educated them to stand on their feet. But by the end of the book, Kakka has all but become a tragic figure. Vishnu Khare, in his afterword to the Hindi version, has likened him, when finally deprived of his beloved dhaba, to a “suburban King Lear”. His handsome but abrasive son would rather run a cycle repair shop, and his daughters in their failed lives are a source of grief. His single remaining consolation is Babli, who continues to pursue her father’s dream of studying and leading an independent life. It is her eventual success that saves the story from an appalling end.
The English version of the novel reads well, though some departures from the direct, no-frills prose of the Hindi puzzled me. Small-town India of the Hindi heartland comes through as alive and kicking. The teeming life of Ganj Basoda is so clearly observed by the lively narrator that the book might well have been called, to echo the Beatles, ‘A Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes’.
Rai is a fiction writer and translator based in Allahabad