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BASANTI: WRITING THE NEW WOMAN. By Himansu S. Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre (Trans.). Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019. 246 p.

For long out of bounds, Odia novel Basanti has recently returned in a new avatar through a much welcome English translation of the same. The work has long been recognized as unique and experimental. It is the first fictional manifesto of feminism in Odia literature. It is also the first --and going by the record the last--collaborative novel in Odia. The work was serialized in the literary periodical Utkal Sahitya between 1924 and 1926, like most novels of that time, and published as a book in 1931 by Sabuja Sahitya Samiti. Nine young writers of the Sabuja Age--a delayed version of Romanticism in Odia literature - took turns to compose the novel. The novel can be said to exemplify the model of unity-in-diversity

A simple plot unusually plotted

Basanti is on one level a simple story of love, marriage, separation and reunion. A young girl named Basanti, living in Cuttack and brought up to be self-respecting and freedom loving by her liberal parents, is plunged into an uncertain future due to the untimely death, first of her father, and, then of her mother. Debabrata, a young man from a wealthy zamindar family from Balasore, who is pursuing his education at Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, steps in to rescue her. He loves Basanti and finds his liberal and progressive ideals perfectly matched by hers. He marries her despite opposition from his domineering and conservative mother.

Post marriage their relationship is put to the severest of stresses. Debabrata finds himself unable to credit Basanti's love of books and ideas and her easy going ways in the way he did in the past. On the contrary, he blames her for the very same qualities that once won his admiration. He turns her out of home in a fit of rage. After suffering his share of trials and tribulations he is of course reunited with her at the end. Around this simple and somewhat formulaic tale of love, separation and reunion the authors of Basanti have woven their complex narrative of a woman aspiring for freedom and demanding equality with men. The nine authors - six men and three women - have developed this woman's story concertedly, leaving their distinctive signatures in the style and the character creation.

A feminist ahead of her time

Though conceived of almost a century ago, the eponymous heroine does not come across as a figure locked in the distant past. The aspiration she voices for the independence and emancipation of women through education makes her leap across the years and speak to our time. Savour this remark made by her in a conversation about unequal gender roles in society with a male friend of her husband Debabrata: "But there should be a place for women outside the world of men. Unless there is, women's lives will not be full" (113). This could serve as a timely feminist slogan now.

The same quest for self-esteem and identity informs Basanti's desire for a place outside domesticity, her desire to start a school for girls in the hide-bound village she makes her home after marriage. It is in fact in her desire to balance home and work that she declares her affinity with a modern woman faced with the conflicting demands of career and home. But Basanti is much less advantageously placed compared to her contemporary counterpart. She has to balance work with not just home, but with a world larger than her domestic sphere, a world governed by traditional pieties that demand that a woman conform to her 'second sex' status. Whereas her modern counterpart has usually to juggle her career and her nuclear family, she is up against patriarchy in a much more direct way. Her quiet rebuttal of this ethos makes her a dissenter, a true rebel.

The gender trap

Woman-centred as the novel is, it does not fail to give a finely nuanced portrayal of the male protagonist, Debabrata. He is shown as a well meaning idealist. He is against caste and gender hierarchy and wants education to be used as a means of social change. But there is an incompleteness of conversion in him. That is to say, he is someone who, despite wanting or trying to, cannot practise the ideals he professes. He marries Basanti for love and he does really mean to make this orphaned and helpless woman happy. He believes his important duty was to take care of her: "...he never let himself forget that his most important duty was to ensure that Basanti was happy, and, of course, to take care of her. How could she forget this, when she was a soothing ray of moonlight in his life (70)?"

Things do, however, turn out differently. Their relationship changes from respect and love to indifference and doubt within a short time of their marriage. The conflict between subjective desires and objective realities has been rarely rendered more dramatically in an early Indian novel. It is just not that Debabrata is assailed by self-doubt: "Was he still the same Debabrata? Why did he no longer feel the same life force coursing through him as when he was a student?...he surely must have changed. He realised that under the barrage of onslaughts from the world his soul had been crushed" (71).

The irony of the situation is that 'Debabhai' finally becomes a stranger for Basanti. Their relationship reaches a crisis point with Debabrata suspecting Basanti of infidelity and turning her out of home. The novel shows through the interesting medium of confessional--diary entries and letters - and also through the juxtaposition of dialogues and incidents how the strained relationship is more of a socially determined impasse than a purely personal misunderstanding. In other words, at the root of their relationship lies gender, or, to be more precise, the disparity of gender.

When the same male friend (Braja) of her husband's asks Basanti: "All right, sister-in-law, tell me what's your goal in life?", she replies, "You may not believe it, but I'm telling you the truth. I haven't yet been able to decide what my goal should be. But I do have certain beliefs about the sort of life a woman should have" (149). Encoded in this reply is a critique of the male-oriented society's instrumental conception of goal that effectively bars women, especially women like Basanti who have beliefs about the dignity of women's lives, from having goals.

Female bonding

What makes Basanti a leading work in Odia feminist literature is that it is a novel that explores female bonding through its portrayal of the solidarity between women. This is made clear not only from the friendship between the women characters in the novel but also from the way this friendship differs from and contrasts with the friendship between the men characters. In the novel Basanti and her mother Nirmala bond with several women and the bonding is existential and personal, in other words on the micro level. Debabrata, however, has only one male friend and his bonding with him is on an ideological level, that is to say, on the macro or big picture level. While experiences and intimacies of shared life are foregrounded in the way Nirmala, Basanti's mother, relates to Kalyani, Suniti's mother, and Basanti relates to her two best friends pre and post marriage, Suniti and Nisa, abstract notions of social work--Dickens has exposed the hollowness of this sort of 'telescopic philanthropy' - are the glue that bind Debabrata with Ramesh, his only friend in the novel. Basanti is also shown as more flexible in her relationships, being able to relate to a wide variety of women and men and as an equal. Debabrata, however, comes across as inflexible in the matter of forming relationships with people. He can only relate to people hierarchically. He is most comfortable when he is around his social inferiors, like the servant Dhania, for example. Basanti is, by contrast, more personable and caring in the way she treats Dhania and the maid Saniama. And despite being mistreated by her mother-in-law Subhadra, she makes a genuine effort to connect with her at a human level. No wonder it is Subhadra who wakes up to Basanti's human qualities in her absence and does not rest until she is found and brought back home.


Basanti then is a rare work of fiction, collectively imagined and written in order to nail down a fleeting glimpse of woman's freedom in a society in which it was not a reality yet. The English translation is lucid and flows like an uninterrupted stream. This is remarkable considering the fact that the translators are additionally faced with the delicate task of rendering the book's plurality of styles, a task they have seemingly performed with aplomb.


Rama Devi Women's University
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Article Details
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Author:Mishra, Manisha
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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