Books

The Twin Bondage of Caste and Desire in Chander & Sudha

Dharamvir Bharati’s 1949 classic novel exploring caste, social propriety and love, which has been translated from the Hindi by Poonam Saxena, remains relevant to this day.

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Dharamvir Bharati was a giant in the world of Indian literature and his 1949 novel Gunahon ka Devta, a classic. In 2014, Bhartiya Ghyanpith publishers brought out the 71st edition of the book – 17 years after Bharati’s death – giving an indication of both its popularity and the enduring resonance of the themes of love, desire, respect, caste and social propriety that cut across the book. Maybe this is because even though we do see instances when love surpasses the boundaries of caste and creed, this is still a rarity in Indian society, where inter-caste marriages can be punished by death and inter-community marriages termed “love jihad”.

Bharati, a recipient of the Padma Shri award, was just 23 years old when he wrote this enormously powerful novel, which would take the Hindi literary world by storm. Part of the reason may be that in the novel, Bharati took on not only the idea of caste relations, but also the implicit idea that platonic love was better than physical desire. His illumination of the destruction of love, uncoupled by desire, and vice versa, remains one of the most powerful critiques of the devastation that results from trying to thwart natural affection.

The novel is set in the late 1940s, and revolves around the household of the widowed Dr. Shukla, professor at Allahabad University. The orphaned Chandrakumar Kapoor is one of Dr. Shukla’s favourite students and becomes a part of the professor’s household. The other person in the household is Dr. Shukla’s daughter, Sudha, motherless and lonely. The affection between her and Chander grows naturally, but is restrained by the constraints of caste, social sanction and respect.

At the start of the novel, Dr. Shukla comes across as a vehement critic of inter-caste marriage, claiming that marriage is not an emotional union but a social institution where the compatibility of social class, in this case, caste, is essential. When Chander argues that marriage is an emotional bond between two individuals and that the difference of caste does not matter, Dr. Shukla disagrees:

“I don’t view marriage with emotion. It is a social reality and we must view it as such. The most important thing in a marriage is cultural similarity. Different castes have different traditions and customs. If a girl marries into a different caste, she will not be able to find the correct balance.”

Chander disagrees with Dr. Shukla’s opinions and believes that caste system will soon be a redundant institution. Nevertheless the real-life consequence of Dr. Shukla’s strong opinions is that Chander and Sudha restrain their emotions, turning their affection into a platonic trap.

Chander is lower caste and though he may be a favourite of Dr. Shukla’s, and he may be a part of the household, he is not good enough to marry Sudha solely due to his caste.

It is not that Dr. Shukla is completely hidebound. In fact, in an early scene, he helps his niece, Binti, escape from a marriage by interrupting the pheras of the bride and groom, and taking her from the venue of the marriage. But in the case of his own daughter, he marries her off to a suitable socialist comrade. Chander, suitably deluded into believing in a platonic ideal, acts as a key facilitator, convincing Sudha, who wishes to remain unmarried. It is a loveless marriage, one that is rescued from complete despair by the exchange of letters between Sudha and Chander.

Deprived of its natural fulfilment, Chander turns to sex, in the arms of Premala D’Cruz, or Pammi, an older woman, a Christian, separated from her husband. Her unconventional freedom allows Chander to question her about ideas of love and sex, and when she confirms for him that sex is an essential part of a woman’s love, he plunges headlong into the relief that her body offers him. And yet he remains tortured by his love for Sudha, unable to extinguish or replace that feeling with physical love alone. He tries to form an intellectual attachment with Binti, but this too fails.

Meanwhile, Sudha, locked in a marriage in which there is no joy, slowly withers away. Her suppressed desire destroys her life, just as Chander’s destroys his peace of mind. At the end of the novel Sudha, in a conversation with Chander, says:

“Whosoever tries to separate the body and the soul gets caught in the most tumultuous storms, only to be smashed into pieces. Chander, I am your soul, your spirit. You were my body. God knows how we got separated. Without you, I was reduced to a microscopic soul. The yearnings of one’s body, the pleasure of one’s body — all this became unfamiliar to me…and without me, you became just your body.”

It is surprising that this much-loved classic remained untranslated for so long. Given its themes, though, of caste, love, sex, and the wages of death that are the rewards of obeying stultified convention, this excellent English translation by Poonam Saxena comes at a very opportune time. Interspersed with colloquialism and self-explanatory, simple language, the translation makes for an easy read. The title Chander & Sudha, however, is oddly stilted, and unappealing. It is disappointing that the literal translation of Gunahon ka Devta, the God of Sins, was not used.

Chander & Sudha
by Dharamvir Bharati
Translated by Poonam Saxena
Penguin India, Rs. 499, 351 pages

The author is a PhD student at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.