Saturday, October 10, 2015

My South Asian Literature Course is Underway

My South Asian Literature course has completed its third week, and I am pleased with it. We have read Bapsi Sidhwa's Water and watched Deepa Mehta's movie of the same name, on which the novel is based. Having taught two other novels by Sidhwa--Cracking India and The Crow Eaters--I found it easy to introduce Sidhwa to my class, situating her within the South Asian Literary tradition.

Reading Water has been eye-opening. Never had I encountered a novel that explored so deeply and passionately the situation of widows in Hindu society. I had some understand of Hindu traditions regarding widows, such as the concept and practice of sati. Water, however afforded a more detailed, more nuanced understanding of the existential condition of widows sanctioned by the religious doctrines going back thousands of years.

The central character is a young girl, Chuyia, married when she was barely ten to a man in his fifties and widowed soon thereafter. In accordance with Hindu Brahmanic tradition, she is taken away from her parents' home and put into an ashram, a home for widows. Chuyia's experiences in the ashram elicit the deepest sadness and sympathy especially since she entertains the hope of returning home sooner rather than later, little knowing that that is not possible.

Before Chuyia is widowed, we hear about the illness of her husband, Hira Lal, through the thoughts of Bhagya, her mother:

She and Somnah [her husband] both knew that if Hira Lal managed to recover, Chuyia would be allowed to return home; but if he didn't recover she would be a widow and she would never return to them....Bhagya's thoughts tormented her all night. She knew that in Brahmin culture, once widowed, a woman was deprived of her useful function in society--that of reproducing and fulfilling her duties to her husband. She ceased to exist as a person; she was no longer either daughter or daughter-in-law. There was no place for her in the community, and she was viewed as a threat to the society. A woman's sexuality and fertility, which was so valuable to her husband in his lifetime, was converted upon his death into a potential danger to the morality of the community. Bhagya's heart was filled with dread (p. 31-32).

When I think about the relationship between films and novels, I assume that the novels came first, inspiring the film makers. Sidhwa's novel, however, reverses this pattern. Watching the film after we had read the novel, I had a hard time keeping this in mind. I appreciated both, nevertheless, touched by the film's vivid portrayals of scenes, characters, and scenery that I had encountered in the novel. The colours and sounds in the film brought back memories of the month I spent in India in 1991.

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