11 October 2015

Kharemaster by Vibhavari Shirurkar

A daughter’s view

I’m lucky to have history professors for friends, and one of them sent me this book as an example of what a biography could be. When I started reading, I was compelled by the simple, emotional narrative of an elderly woman writing her memories of her father’s life, an excellent translation from Marathi. By the end of the book, however, I realised that it was the content and the way it was presented that had most impressed me.
Kharemaster was an unusual person for his time because he made sure that all his children got educated. At a time when Hindu girls were ‘married off’ at the age of eight or even younger; a time when for even a boy to complete high school and be ‘matriculate’ was the privilege of very few, he was determined that his daughters would get a university education. When they were little, he worked with them himself, developing their awareness and giving them knowledge about the world. As they grew older, he went to great extents to find ways for them to get the best possible education.
Still, the book is not a hagiography. Kharemaster’s faults and weaknesses, and in one case a rather shocking incident, are presented with the same warmth and confidence as every other aspect the book covers.
Vibhavari Shirurkar was in her eighties when she wrote this book. All her life, she had written books about the women around her, and these naturally revealed the ways in which they were exploited and dehumanised by the norms of society. The books were admired but they were very controversial. Right from the first one, they were written under a pseudonym. Though she did reveal herself early on, perhaps retaining the pseudonym as her brand, this book goes further. It is not just the biography of Kharemaster but also a complete exposition of the identity of the well-known Marathi litterateur Vibhavari Shirurkar: Balutai, one of the daughters of Kharemaster, and the circumstances in which she grew up and became the person she became.
The story starts with Kharemaster’s own writing, notes from his diary given to Balutai by her mother after her father dies. Then, influenced by an old friend of her father, Balutai takes a decision to write the book by projecting her imagination into the events she remembers and trying to interpret them in her own way. This is a device that works very well, except (to my mind) in one place. Towards the end of his life, Balutai depicts her father as lonely and depressed, preoccupied with feelings of rejection. I did feel that this particular projection might have resulted from feelings of guilt and regret this sensitive woman felt for her parents and their needs, and the conflicting pressures of her own life which prevented her from giving them the attention and care they may have craved. Maybe Kharemaster wasn't all that lonely and depressed after all, maybe he spent his last years in the glow of silent achievement, knowing that all his children were well-off and well settled because he had made sure they got well educated.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the skilled depiction of life in those days, and I learnt a lot: a deeper understanding of the way women were perceived and their own perceptions of themselves; the relevance of caste in society; the human angle of religious conversion, and much more. It was interesting to know that, during the First World War, young Indian men were kidnapped and sent by force to join the British army. It was also interesting to see how the emergence of women as individuals made marriage more difficult because it took an unusual man to accept that perception. Modern and educated young Indian men and women today are rejecting marriage, refusing to enter into a contract that forces them into traditional roles that they cannot and will not fulfil. It was a movement that began with the dedicated actions and sacrifices made by rare people like Kharemaster.