A novel conceived ahead of its times

Suman K Sharma
Ved Rahi’s Dogri novel GARBHJOON (Ranbir Publications, Jammu, marks an important milestone in Dogri literature. The theme of the novel is about the disorderliness that prevailed in J&K around the year 1955. The largely autonomous J&K had, de jure, no constitution at that time. The now-defunct constitution was adopted on 26 January, 1957.
With the fountain-spring of the law yet to flow out, the rule in the state then was what the ruling elite, their underlings and hangers-on wished to impose on the public. The citizenry, long subjected to the clammy autocracy of the Dogra rulers, had been promised the fullness and fairness of democracy in ‘Naya Kashmir’. Instead, it found itself mired in corruption and depravation. The rot, it seems, had gone deep into the very roots of the society.
Story-wise, Charan, the son of a conventional family, falls in love with Rani, a prostitute. A college dropout, he dabbles in theatre for pin money. Rani is a comely woman, engaged in the oldest profession from a dungeon in the city to support herself, an invalid husband and their two children, who live back in her village. For Charan the affair starts in a drunken fling. He wants to know ‘janaani ke cheez he’ (p11). For Rani, the moment is business as usual. The aftermath of this liaison can well be imagined, and the author offers no surprises to that.
It is the characters around Charan that surprise us today. Charan’s father, Lala Hardayal maintains strict discipline at home. He frowns upon his son’s growing interest in the theatre. But this same Lala Hardayal shows another face at Thekedar Farangimal’s Inder-sabha night after night. On Farangimal’s bidding, he at his venerable age, would go fetch Rani to satisfy the depraved minister’s craving (pp 73-75). Even the lordly Farangimal himself has no compunction in playing a lowly procurer and cup-bearer to Sopuri, the minister (pp 39-42). When Rani refuses to subject herself again to Sopuri’s beastly proclivities, Farangimal lets loose Inspector Samyal upon her. Samyal summons her to the police station, abducts her from there to his private den and mauls her so ferociously that she has to be hospitalised for several days.
There is complete perversion of the social norms and polity. We find Charan’s own friend, Madan, glowing as if in divine beatitude. ‘What happened?’ Charan asks him. Madan gushes forth: ‘There were not many people present at Prime Minister’s mansion.…Prime Minister came out as I reached there…. Holding me by my shoulders, he punched me really hard…. Though the blow has sprained my back, I could see how everyone else present there longed to have a similar thwack from him on their backs (pp 16-17).’ That was the way it was.
The novel dwells on another important aspect of human life – man and woman relationship. For young Charan, it is a child-like curiosity, egged on by his friend, Parvez, and fuelled by his own libido, that takes him to Rani. He remains loyal to her throughout, neglecting the virginal overtures of his sister’s friend, Chainchal. Charan’s wholehearted dedication to Rani comes out as a foil to the attitude of Farangimal and his coterie hold towards her person. They are men of money and influence; while she is a poor defenceless woman who has nothing else to trade but her body.
But every woman does not have to suffer like Rani did. Mrs Rajdev, wife of a retired colonel, openly flirts with the party secretary. There is then Parvez’s ‘madam’. Pervez persists in his efforts to win his lady-boss’ favour till she gives in to him. ‘I have captured the fort,’ he brags to Charan. ‘…In her I have possessed a stacked treasure (pp 108-109).’
Are the women in GARBHJOON’s ecosystem, be they high or low, mere playthings in the hands of men? What exactly do men take away from them? Rather than giving a homily on objectification of women, the omniscient author lets the reader have a peep into the private thoughts of Rani – a woman whose profession it is to please men:
‘What is that which these men take away from her? She pondered. She does not have the mind to offer anything to anyone. Then, what do they carry away? How do they carry it? If they really take away something from her, won’t it be exhausted? If it does, what would she do without it? Such thoughts upset her (p 77)’.
GARBHJOON is a singular literary effort on several counts. One, it is reputedly the first Dogri novel in which the theme of man-woman relationship has been explored boldly and with panache. Two, rather than inventing a story of the bygone feudal times, the author has selected a plot based on the contemporary socio-political environment. Three, two disparate issues, namely, male aggrandisement and life in a disorderly society, have been intertwined so deftly in the narrative that they seem to be the faces of the same coin. This has been brought about by an organic connection of the story components. Four, the main characters of the novel are not paragons but earthly creatures with human frailties. Finally, the author’s language is bare and spare. This is how he describes one of the most important scenes of the novel – Charan’s first meeting with Rani:
‘Closing the door, he turned and could see nothing in the utter darkness. He was not sure which way to proceed in the chamber. He advanced in the direction he had turned. Hardly had he gone two steps when his knees touched something. He felt his coat being pulled. A voice said, ‘Sit here.’ (p 14)’.Could Guy de Maupassant or our own Saadat Hasan Munto have bettered Ved Rahi’s description?
Rahi had begun writing GARBHJOON in 1962, though it was published in 1992. 1960s was the time Dogri novel came into being. Opines Shivanath, ‘The picture that emerges (from the novels written during that period) is one of the old feudal social order based on class distinctions…. There is a certain amateurishness in the novels, the canvas is narrow and the characters, particularly the women, are idealised….(HISTORY OF DOGRI LITERATURE, p 149). Shivanath’s HISTORY was published in 1976.
The erudite scholar could not have anticipated the avant garde ideas that Rahi conceived when he set forth to write GARBHJOON.