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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Truth be Told

The autobiography of an unusual woman who made unconventional choices

Written by Bharati Ray | Published: April 20, 2013 1:02:50 am

Book: A Life Apart: An Autobiography

Author: Prabha Khaitan

Tr by Ira Pande

Publisher: Zubaan

Price: Rs 395

Pages: 278

With her book in hand,I suddenly remember Prabha Khaitan. I had met her and she had showed much warmth towards me; we were part of the women’s movement and she was a prominent woman,as far as I recall,the first female President of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce. After several encounters at several places,I lost touch,and then as it happens under pressure of work,or whatever,she slipped out of my mind. I blame myself today for not getting to know her,behind that sweet,friendly laughter. It is my loss,because she was an unusual woman.

And she has written an unusual book. Writing an autobiography,she says,“is a striptease act,” and she has bared her life,and soul,in this strikingly honest piece. It is primarily a love story. Whatever she might say,to me,it seems a one-sided love story. The man was not worthy of her. While going through their conversations,and getting glimpses of Prabha’s emotional upheavals,the insult she had to face from society — (in her own words) “neither a mother,nor a wife,not a daughter,not even a kept woman”— what was she? One is reminded of Tagore’s line “Bhalobasa kare koi? Se ki emoni jatanamoy? (What is the thing called love? Is it so painful?)” She sometimes asked herself what she got out of this lifelong relationship with a married man,while he hardly looked after her needs. She however devotedly “carried the torch for him”. But at the end of a constant struggle with herself and frustrations with the man she loved,she learnt two important lessons —“bodily desires do not square with love” and “Did I really know the man?…the only person I knew and understood was myself.” Maybe these are age old truths,but one seldom consciously realises them.

Prabha had another great love,almost as obsessive as the love for the man. It was her work,her business. Starting from scratch,she built up a big business,became rich on her own,earning more than the doctor lover. The man grew intolerant. Who wants a woman as a lover who is at heart a business woman,and “like a man” understands the dubious game of profits,losses,takes her business decisions and travels the world for her work? The man was jealous,and in my view,mean,never extending a hand of support.

Prabha came from the conservative Marwari community and defied conventions to lead life on her own terms. Fighting her battles single-handedly,she felt the unfairness of the patriarchal world. “This whole nonsense of of the sanctity of a woman’s body is a patriarchal myth. It is always the woman who is told to keep herself pure and the onus is always placed on her shoulders,never on a man’s. Have you ever heard of a man committing sati or jauhar,” she writes.

Read as a love story,examined as a social history,providing a portrait of contemporary times,analysed as a feminist text,Prabha’s work,competently translated by Ira Pande,is an autobiographical text matched by few. In my research on women’s autobiographies,I have seldom come across a work that so unabashedly,candidly and courageously tells the truth,unconcerned about how society will judge it. She says about a temporary relationship,“I did not commit a crime; it was just another example of human frailty.” And who is free from that?

Bharati Ray is vice-president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations

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