Book Title: Won’t You Stay, Radhika?
Author: Usha Priyamvada
Usha Priyamvada (officially Usha Nilsson) made a name for herself as a fiction writer in Hindi in the 1960s, at the same time as writers like Mannu Bhandari and Krishna Sobti. She taught English in Allahabad and Delhi, and then went off to the US on a Fulbright scholarship. In this novel, first published in 1967, Radhika, the heroine, has just returned from the US after a couple of years. She finds India alienating in turn, and is hard put to decide whether to stay or go back. (The author herself stayed on in the US, made a career teaching Hindi at Wisconsin, got married to a white person, and after a hiatus, resumed writing fiction, now about Indians living in the US.)
But Radhika in this novel is rather more anguished. Perhaps, that is what fiction is for, to portray with intricate intimacy situations of emotional conflict and hard choices. Nor is a possible return to the US the only quandary in her life. She has three admirers here and cannot decide between them, while many of her relatives have only too readily given credence to the rumours that she had, while living in the US, married the white American divorcee who had smoothed her path to that country.
Yet another force pulling her in a different direction is her aging, ailing father who as a widower had brought her up and whom she must now leave alone, even if she stays on in India and proceeds to marry anyone. In Priyamvada’s previous novel, also translated by Daisy Rockwell as ‘Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls’, the heroine was similarly caught between her attachment to her parents whom she needs to support, and contemplating marriage which will take her away from them.
Clearly, these dire dilemmas were rather more acute and common half a century ago when these novels were first published, if only because a working woman was more of a rarity then. In terms of the vivid details with which this novel is packed, we are back in a world in which a cup of tea costs “12 naye paise” (the decimal currency had been introduced only recently in 1957), one rode home from a railway station in a tonga, and housewives carefully picked out “pebbles” from dal before cooking it.
What the novel is even better at is depicting the emotional conflict within the protagonist’s mind. She is caught between what radical feminist theorists decades later would characterise as the “feminine” and the “feminist”, between the traditional roles prescribed for women by patriarchy and a woman’s awakening to her own individual needs and desires. Radhika feels oppressed by the world but is tormented no less by her own inability to break free, unheeding of the others she cares for.
Radhika’s “listlessness” is treated with sensitivity and even indulgence by the narrator in this broadly autobiographical novel. In her ‘Introduction’, the translator seems less generous; she calls Radhika’s state of mind “ennui” and wants her to stop lying around on her daytime bed (takht) but to get up and get on with it. Some of the Indian readers may be more understanding and empathetic. The translator also alternates between an American idiom (characters “swing by” a bazaar or make a phone call from a “drugstore”), but then also resorts to literalist constructions: ‘Radhika laughed slightly”. She also calls this a “slight novel”, a gratuitous slight from a collaborator.