December 7, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Book Excerpt: Fifty-five pillars, Red walls by Usha Priyamvada (Translated by Daisy Rockwell)

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An exclusive excerpt from Fifty-five pillars, Red walls originally written by Usha Priyamvada in Hindi and translated by Daisy Rockwell in English (Speaking Tiger, 2021).

Translator’s Note by Daisy Rockwell

I. Introduction

Usha Priyamvada’s novels are spare, keenly observed windows into the lives of educated middle-class women, exploring themes of desire, ennui and loneliness. Her work has enjoyed immense popularity with women readers in Hindi, but garnered scant attention from critics. Like many chroniclers of women’s lives around the world, Usha (she prefers to be referred to by her first name or full pen name; ‘Priyamvada’ was her mother’s name) has been relegated to the category of ‘lady writer’ despite the sophistication of her writing and her distinctive feminist protagonists. Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls, first published in 1961, is something of a cult classic in Hindi, and was Priyamvada’s debut novel. Set in a women’s college that closely resembles Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, the novel is a seminal feminist work that explores the complex inter-relationship of desire, financial freedom and familial obligation. The story focuses on the struggles of Sushma Sharma, an intelligent young lecturer and hostel warden. The title refers to the distinctive architecture of the college, which Sushma comes to experience as an exquisite prison.

Sushma is in her early thirties and has enjoyed great success at her job, but feels isolated and lonely. Her father has been unwell and receives a meagre pension which is not enough to support his family and pay for his daughters’ marriages. Because of the family’s straitened financial circumstances, Sushma, the eldest, has been allowed to pursue an academic career. Now the family has come to depend on her earnings and her mother does not want her to marry, for fear that she might leave her job and cease to support them. Sushma accepts her responsibility and is proud of her accomplishments, but feels a sense of loss as she confronts the possibility that she will never marry and must live her life alone.

The dilemma Sushma faces when she falls in love is not an unusual one for an educated, working woman of the era. Work and marriage were not two things that easily fit together, and many women had to choose between one or the other. As we see in the novel, those women that chose the single life would never leave a colleague in peace if they tried to have it both ways. Add to this the special wrinkle that by releasing Sushma from the obligations of arranged marriage and allowing her to work, her family has not given her freedom, but rather found a way to exploit her as an asset. Fifty-five Pillars gives us— readers more than fifty years later—a window into a particular moment in women’s history, when women with apparent freedom and advanced education struggled for independence and autonomy.

II. On Datedness and Women’s Writing

Despite Usha’s popularity in Hindi, none of her novels has ever been translated into English. Indeed, when I first proposed the translation, I was told by a number of different people (including the author herself !) that the work was too dated for our current era. ‘Translate my most recent novel,’ urged Usha in an email. ‘I fear that one is too dated.’

Dated. This word was used by prospective editors and fellow translators alike. It is an interesting word to use. We say that hairstyles are dated. Skirt lengths. Movies from twenty years ago. But a novel published fifty-eight years ago, in 1961? I began to think about other novels that were published around the same time. Were they dated?

In Hindi, there was Mohan Rakesh’s classic work Andhere Band Kamre (Closed, Dark Rooms), (translated as Lingering Shadows by Jai Ratan, Hind Pocket Books, 1970) published the very same year. Rakesh’s novel is considered a classic. It is also set in New Delhi, and it also concerns the sense of melancholy and alienation experienced in an urban setting by educated characters. Rakesh also writes about the tension between regressive traditions and modern, urban life. Why is his novel a classic, and not dated? Is it because Rakesh was not a ‘lady writer’?

Khadija Mastur’s classic (there’s that word again!) Urdu novel Aangan, which I translated recently (The Women’s Courtyard, Penguin India, 2018) was first published in Pakistan in 1963. But while Fifty-five Pillars is set in New Delhi in the late ’50s, Aangan is set in the 1930s and ’40s pre-Partition India, and then a bit of post-Partition Pakistan. The genius of Aangan is in the strict formal constraint Mastur sets for herself: of placing all the action of the novel in the courtyard of the family home. We don’t even see what the women do when they leave that space. This constraint imposes upon the author a certain discipline. The main character, Aliya, never even enters the sitting room, or the baithak, which is a men’s space, except for when her uncle is in prison. An aangan is a constraint, and it is also a type of prison, a symbol for the actual limitations placed on women’s lives by patriarchy. By contrast, the setting of Fifty-five Pillars is one where women have considerably more freedom of movement than in the world of Aangan. In the end of Aangan, however, Aliya has moved to Pakistan, is the mistress of her home (which she shares with a difficult nagging mother, much like Sushma’s), and chooses a career of teaching over marriage, just like Sushma. So what makes Aangan a classic, and not dated? Is it because it is located more comfortably in the past?

Excerpted with permission from  Fifty-five pillars, Red walls originally written by Usha Priyamvada in Hindi and translated by Daisy Rockwell in English (Speaking Tiger, 2021).

About the Book

First published in 1961, Usha Priyamvada’s debut novel Pachpan Khambe, Laal Deewaarein is located within the boundaries of an all-women’s college in Delhi. Behind its walls is Sushma Sharma—lecturer, warden, single, and sole provider for her large family. Despite her relative youth and elegance, she is resigned to the regimented loneliness of her life, until a chance meeting with the charismatic Neel. Then, long-thwarted desires uncurl and the shackles she has accepted suddenly begin to seem unbearable. But the world around her is still unchanged, and independence still causes scandal.

In spare, evocative prose, Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls skilfully explores the physical, mental and social paradigms which locked so many women into narrow ideals, as they still do. Daisy Rockwell’s pitch-perfect translation brings this quietly intense, poignant and pathbreaking Hindi novel into the blazing spotlight of classic Indian literature for the first time.

About the Author

Usha Priyamvada is among the leading figures of modern Indian literature. She was born in 1930 in Kanpur, and studied at Allahabad University. After teaching at Lady Shri Ram College and Allahabad University, she won a Fulbright fellowship to study comparative literature at the University of Indiana. Following that, she was hired at the University of Wisconsin, where she went on to teach for decades until her retirement in 2002. She has published seven novels, a study of Surdas, and numerous short stories.

About the Translator

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator living in Vermont, USA. She holds a PhD in South Asian literature from the University of Chicago. She has translated Krishna Sobti’s most recent novel, A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There (2019), as well as a number of other works, including Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (2016), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (2015), and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (2018).

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