Updated: November 18, 2021 7:05:34 am
Mannu ji passed away quietly, graceful and unassuming to the end. We had said our goodbyes much earlier. She will remain for me a symbol of all that is noble, tenacious and self-sufficient in the unusual people we meet each day — mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. These qualities will make her literary legacy more precious with the passage of time, as academia and publishing cease to straitjacket unusual women writers into a slot, simplistically marked “feminist”. And, as women writers realise the folly of accepting the label because short-term advantages are often the only ones visible to the powerless.
I have been reading Mannu Bhandari’s short stories and novels, serialised in popular Hindi magazines, since my teens. But I never felt particularly supportive of the Nai Kahani movement in Hindi despite the many brilliant writers it boasted: Mannu’s husband Rajendra Yadav, Bhisham Sahni, Kamleshwar, Ravindra Kalia. I liked their work but the politicisation of literature into this camp or that never attracted me.
Mannu remained special. She was warm, irreverent without being rudely dismissive, and her writing resonated with rare honesty. She was like a brave but tender bird among hawks — one likely to get wounded but not back away in fear. In 1974, I rushed to watch Rajnigandha, a Basu Chatterjee-directed movie based on her short story Yahi Sach Hai. The film was a hit.
Her writer husband Rajendra Yadav, also critic and editor, was quite a contrast to her. At my first meeting with this power couple of Hindi writing in Delhi, it was obvious that they came from different backgrounds. Bhandari, born in Mandsaur, belonged to a well-educated and prosperous Jain family. She taught Hindi at Miranda House in Delhi, and dressed simply but elegantly. Rajendraji belonged to the wild west of Agra and made much of being a Yadav, a freelance writer, and being a street-smart man (actually he was quite a softie). He had unkind things to say about the upper castes and would often crack vile jokes about women writers, followed by a booming laugh.
There was, however, never a question of Mannuji changing her style to suit his idiosyncrasies. She always negotiated her own path within the largely misogynistic Hindi writing establishment of the 1960s and 1970s. The public comparison between her writing and her husband’s by critics with vicious tongues did not ruffle her. She wrote on. Her calm temperament can, perhaps, be traced to her upbringing in a traditional but liberal home. Her father, a disciplinarian, was a freedom fighter and connoisseur of good literature. She had a good job, was financially independent and remained her own person right till the end.
After marrying a person from a different background, she was in for several shocks, one of them culinary. “You know,” Mannuji told me once with a laugh, “when I visited Rajendra’s home for the first time and sat down to have breakfast in their kitchen, they placed an enormous plate of jalebis and kachoris in front of me. I was dumbstruck when told it was a typical Agra breakfast.”
Her dedication to Rajendra Yadav as a fellow traveller remained, but they decided to part ways later in life. It was a brave act for a woman in those days. But Mannuji did it gracefully, and as painlessly as possible. As writers, the two remained cordial and on good terms. They continued to consult each other and Mannu unfailingly attended the annual celebrations of Rajendra’s excellent magazine Hans. But the pain she suffered reflects in her writings. In Yahi Sach Hai, Aapka Bunty, Stree Subodhini, Teesra Hissa and Nayak Khalnayak Vidushak, she wrote of the fear, confusion, guilt and sheer desperation women feel when a marriage breaks up. The men in these works come out as playing roles on an imaginary stage — as the hero, anti-hero and the clown.
Today, to Indian women writing in English about women and men, the themes are much more about power, achievement and money. Mannu’s writing was about having choices; about the power and powerlessness embedded in the male-centric world all women — in fact all creative writers — must inhabit. In her seventies, Mannu was afflicted by a painful neurological condition her doctor traced to extreme stress. She must allow him to deaden a particular nerve, he told her, since there was no other cure for such pain. She underwent the traumatic procedure. But as a writer, Mannu remained the opposite of neurotic.
She did not allow the complicated partnership with her talented but troubled husband to diminish her warmth and appreciation of good writing. Rajendraji, like many male Hindi writers of his generation, could trade his creativity (which they felt was transient and too humane) for the waxwork grandeur of publishing, editorship and even mentoring young female writers — to whom such mentoring came at a cost, laced as it was often with some bitterness and petulance. Because Mannu chose not to take that path, writers like me could talk freely and joke and laugh with her on topics ranging from literature to the occasional desire for self-combustion.
Without saying so, by leading us through her stories, she made us aware of the wells of anger we had sealed within us. There’s the witty, bitterly imitative humour of Stree Subodhini, for example, in which a married woman warns other young women against the dangers of falling for married men, who cheat, excite and finally return to the comforts of male tradition, all passion spent. In her works, as we crack up at the deliberately preachy Hindi of handbooks men had created for “good women”, we also see the masks of traditional Indian marriages slip.
Her writings reflect the strange tensions between spent old systems that continue to dominate middle-class India and the emerging new cluster of ideas, full of energy but still decentralised and constantly under attack even by those that publicly support them. There is personal testimony in these writings, acquired by looking through a very dark glass with unblinking eyes.
She writes of women cheating on their partners and partners cheating on their wives, thus doubling and redoubling their sense of guilt and confusion. She writes of what is, perhaps, the first large group of educated working women living on their own and hesitating when choosing between their men. Of children devastated by parental separation and co-workers shaking their heads and whispering. Her stories are haunted by stereotypical mothers, wives and lovers, who remain constant and unruffled and unconditionally loving and giving. Shakun in Aapka Bunty seems to respond to something deep inside Mannuji herself — and not to the husband Shakun is pitted against. It is a woman’s world, revealed by shredding the many romantic veils that earlier writers had draped the man-woman relationship in. Even her photograph as an ageing woman, accompanying many of her obituaries seems to say, what the actress Anna Magnani once said so beautifully, “Please don’t touch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 17, 2021 under the title ‘Her unflinching gaze’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati
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