There was a Hindi movie made in 1990 called Gunahon ka Devta. Starring Mithun Chakraborty and Sangeeta Bijlani, it was a typical late 80s B-grade action movie – about an honest police inspector getting falsely implicated for a crime he never committed and his son taking revenge and bashing up the baddie.
For a long time, I was under the impression that this was based on the cult Hindi classic written by the legendary Dr Dharamvir Bharati in 1949. Which incidentally is considered as one of the best novels in Hindi. And this was one reason, why I never wanted to read the book. Another reason was that it was in Hindi and there was no English translation around. While I do know how to read Hindi, I have a mental block when it comes to reading a full-length novel in Hindi.
A couple of months ago, Madhu (Dustedoff) mentioned that she was reading the book (in Hindi) and that the movie had nothing to do with the book. At around the same time, I read somewhere that Poonam Saxena, the editor of HT Brunch, was translating this book into English. I was much more interested, especially now that I knew it had nothing to do with honest police officers and corrupt goons. The translation came out last weekend and I finished reading it this morning.
The story is set in Allahabad and the time period is just after independence and we are introduced to a young research student, Chandrakumar Kapoor. An orphan, this intelligent and diligent research student has a mentor in Dr Shukla, who has helped him immensely in his studies. In fact Chander is more a family member than Dr Shukla’s student. Dr Shukla has a young daughter, Sudha, who is very close to Chander. The two of them share a deep relationship – mainly that of pure affection and friendship, or that is what Chander thinks. He seems to think of her more as a younger sibling than anything else. However, soon it becomes clear to the reader, and a couple of other characters that Sudha is in love with Chander. These characters include Sudha’s best friend, Gesu and Sudha’s cousin Binti, who comes to Allahabad with her sharp-tongued, nasty mother. We are also introduced to the Anglo-Indian sister and brother pair, Pammi and Bertie. Pammi who is older than Chander and Sudha, is a lovely divorcee living in a large house with her mad brother.
Soon, Sudha tells Chander that she loves him. Chander loves her too, and worships her, but does not want to take the relationship further. He holds Dr Shukla in utmost regard and is grateful for all that Dr Shukla has done for him and does not want to betray his trust by declaring his love for Sudha. Moreover, Chander belongs to another caste and this also weighs heavily on his mind (not because of his own views, but because he knows Dr Shukla’s views on the matter.)
Dr Shukla fixes up Sudha’s marriage with Kailash Mishra, a young Brahmin leader and tells Chander to convince Sudha to agree to the match. Chander does just that. He has also met Kailash and knows that he is a good man; so he starts insisting to Sudha (who does whatever Chander asks her to) to marry Kailash. Sudha, reluctantly and unwillingly, marries Kailash and Chander, unable to cope with it, goes to pieces, almost going mad. As he comes to term with his guilt, loss and sadness, he grows as a person, understanding his own confused take on love and life.
This is a novel that is firmly rooted in its time telling the story of its youth. Allahabad of those days comes alive in this book – a dive in the Ganges, walks in the parks and reading poetry. How distant that world seems from today. This is what makes the Chander-Sudha love story poignant. Marriage meant a final separation and thats what it was. No twitter, no email, no Facebook – there were the odd letters now and then.
Going by the novel’s immense popularity among the young Hindi-speaking male population of its time and generations later, it is clear that the author has struck a chord with his portrayal of Chander (who is the most interesting character in the book.)
Chander is deeply flawed, idealistic, intelligent and at the same time very confused about love, sex and life. It is because of this intrinsic confusion, he fails in the three relationships he has (albeit in different forms) – Sudha, Pammi and Binti.
The story is narrated in a believable, realistic manner – with an appropriate ending. The characters are not black and white – they are filled with many shades of grey. They are strong, weak, wise, foolish, selfish and cruel at different times in the book. As mentioned above, Chander is idealistic, intelligent, with some deep flaws and these come out and are explored as the book progresses. Dr Shukla starts off by being a kind, gentle, religious professor, completely steeped in his society with his class and caste prejudices. He does his puja-path, follows his rituals, does not believe in inter-caste marriages. However, when he sees his own daughter wilt away, after an arranged marriage with the decent Kailash, he changes his views. He is instrumental is saving Binti from a disastrous wedding. He stops the wedding and takes her with him to Delhi and educates her. By the end of the novel, he is fine with the idea of an inter-caste marriage.
Sudha, on one hand could be seen as a repressed, tragic Hindu lady, trapped in a marriage not of her choice who turns to prayer and religion for solace. But on the other hand, she is also fairly modern. She is firm about her love for Chander and doesn’t expect her equation to change even after her marriage. This conflict between what she wants and what she is forced to do has a detrimental effect on her body and health.
The one characterisation I had an issue with was Pammi. She is lovely, lonely, a divorcee, and a woman who enjoys the pleasures of the flesh. While drawn as the vamp, she turns out to be a tragic figure (for me) by the end. My issue with her character was not that she is a woman with desires but that the author has fallen back on stereotype and made her an Anglo-Indian. Why not have her instead as an educated upper caste Hindu? I also did not particularly like the way she is shown to go back to her husband in the end. Her views on marriage are also a bit off-putting. She tells Chander that Hindu women are lucky as their parents get them married by the age of fourteen and to someone they deem fit.
Gesu was an interesting character – like Chander, she sees her loved one married to someone else. But instead of turning bitter and getting frustrated with life, she concentrates on her education and starts working. Binti, the girl with the sad childhood who bears the taunts and barbs of her horrid mother, is rescued from entering a horrible marriage (and existence) by Dr Shukla and turns out luckier than Sudha in the end.
All in all, it was a good read – a novel that explored Allahabad society of those times and the concept of love – in friendship, worship, and sex. The confusions and the thoughts of an idealistic, intelligent youth towards love is brought out very well and the character growth of the male protagonist makes this book an interesting novel.
Sigh, another book I would now be interested in reading in its original… Someday, sometime.
A bit of movie trivia: This story was to have been made into a movie as Ek tha Chander Ek Thi Sudha starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, but it either got shelved (according to Youtube and Wikipedia) or Bachchan was replaced by Sanjay Khan and the movie, now titled Duniya ka Mela was released in 1974. I found the movie on Youtube and tried to watch a bit of it. It doesn’t look like the same story. Or maybe the story has been ‘bollywoodized‘, such that there is nothing in common with the original book. However, there are a couple of unreleased songs picturised on Amitabh and Rekha from Ek tha Chander Ek Thi Sudha, that I found while surfing. Do take a look.