Reading in Hindi: ‘Chal Khusro Ghar Aapne’ (and a short Playlist)

Amir Khusro with some disciples - By Anonymous artist from Bokhara — Рукопись ИВ АН УзССР, 65, л. 68., Public Domain,

After a couple of failed attempts at reading Raag Darbaari, I recently returned to Hindi literature. I’ve struck gold this time!

On my Chennai-Bhubaneswar flights last month, I read Mannu Bhandari’s short stories and was hooked to Hindi fiction. I followed this up with Bhagwati Charan Verma’s Chitralekha, then Malti Joshi’s short stories. This morning, I finished Shivani’s Chal Khusro Ghar Aapne. Hindi writers (and I assume this is true of most non-English Indian literature, which I unfortunately can’t read outside of translation) seem to capture various flavours of middle-class India in a unique manner, the situations perhaps lending themselves to certain turns of phrase more readily. You know how it is simpler to express certain things in your mother tongue than in a foreign language? Reading Hindi, one of the first languages I learnt, feels like a homecoming. Allowing myself some vanity here, I was the Tamil girl who was often the Hindi topper in classrooms of students from different states. The icing on the cake was my 98 in the Class 10 Boards, which I consider one of my biggest achievements to date, thanks to my Hindi teacher, Asha Pandey Ma’am. I owe this (and my interest in Hindi literature) entirely to you.

The plot of the book I want to write about today, Chal Khusro Ghar Aapne, might sound familiar to those who’ve grown up on a healthy diet of English classics. It is a product of its times, but also a touching exploration of the lives and pressures of two families living in diametrically opposite economic conditions. What binds them is the air of disgrace and disrepute that are readily bestowed on those who don’t follow certain unwritten rules.

Gori sove sej par, mukh par dare kes/A woman (or lover) lies on her bed, her hair across her face

Chal Khusro ghar aapne, saanjh bhayi chahun des/Dusk is falling and it is time to return home

Amir Khusro’s verse, from which the book takes its title, hints at the story. If, like me, you go into it without knowing the meaning of the verse, you make uneducated guesses as you read. I won’t go into the meaning here, in case you decide to read the book for yourself, but if you’re interested in this verse, (in Hindi) talks a little about it. In a nutshell, it is in line with the Sufi search for the divine and the desire to return ‘home’.

Shivani’s novel employs the ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope in the form of Malti, a woman with mental health issues; Kumud, an innocent young woman with a childlike appearance, is brought in from Lucknow as a caretaker. Worn out by the demands of her family — her widowed mother’s constant demands and concern for the wellbeing of her two other children, who choose to do as they please — Kumud chooses to work away from Lucknow for the relative peace of mind and prosperity the position offers. Even as she initially hesitates at the prospect of caring for a woman with mental health issues, Kumud settles into the physical comfort of her new environs, the grace of her new employer offsetting the indifference, sometimes hatred, of the rest of the staff. In a searing sentence, she tells her mother how she has never experienced the kind of comfort she does now; away from the family where she is expected to make all the sacrifices without complaining, where her likes and dislikes are always secondary to those of other people, appeased with the money she earns.

Shivani describes the circumstances behind Kumud’s escape to her new job in great detail; however, the story of Malti and her husband, Rajkamal Singh, is not explored as much. Kumud is the hapless protagonist that we all want to root for, not without her weak points, but the constant victim. I would have liked to learn more about Malti and her life, about the demons that besieged her relationship with Singh. Sure, she didn’t have all her faculties in control, but that makes her all the more interesting. This book needs its own Wild Sargasso Sea. Then there is Mariam, a mysterious shadow, whose existence hangs over the palatial house like an ugly mystery, explained quickly as the story closes. Also, the physical stereotypes of deformation/ugliness for cruel characters, and beauty for the noble ones, did not go down well with me — which is one of the reasons I say the book is a product of its times, in a society that still prizes its fairness creams.

That said, Shivani was an extremely skilled writer with a keen eye for detail. She created an air of tension effortlessly, aroused the kind of curiosity that makes you read late into the night, and kept the thread of discomfort going all through the book. I’m certainly going to read more for her. However, at the moment, it is the turn of her daughter, Mrinal Pande. I’ve just begun Sahela Re, which promises some more delicious historical fiction and a dive into the lanes of Benares, alive with the strains of Hindustani classical music.

And if you’re interested in some music to go with both these books, here is a short playlist:

  1. performed by Vid Kishori Amonkar, whose Raag Bhoop is considered incomparable
  2. from Coke Studio, which opens with Khusro’s lines from above, performed by Vijay Prakash and Nandini Srikar
  3. by Abi Sampa, bringing Raag Bhoop to Khusro’s verses

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A woman from many places.

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Jaya Srinivasan

Jaya Srinivasan

A woman from many places.

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