‘All her life, she swam upstream, defying convention, defying prejudice, questioning choices,’ says Namita Gokhale in the foreword to this autobiography by Hindi writer Dr Prabha Khaitan, translated into English by Ira Pande, A Life Apart. Pande, whose own style of writing resembles that of the author, says she took up the book because she was fascinated by the author’s ‘ability to weave in the small, seemingly insignificant details of the world about her’. But it is publisher Urvashi Butalia who really comes close to deciphering the relevance of Khaitan’s autobiography when she says, ‘Her moving autobiography shows how women tread the difficult path between the desire for independence and pull of family and tradition, but above all, it shows unsparingly how women can train the gaze upon themselves.’
Khaitan’s story is a moving attempt to write about a life that has been nothing short of extraordinary. Born into a Marwari family in Calcutta in 1942, Khaitan lived life differently not only as a woman writer, but also as a businesswoman, an entrepreneur and an activist. The translator of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex into Hindi had a degree in existentialism and philosophy when she went to Los Angeles to pursue a diploma in beauty therapy. She came back and opened Figurette, a women’s health care unit, the first of its kind in eastern India.
Later, Khaitan diversified into leather exports despite opposition from her conservative, close-knit community and family. The day she showed her export samples to her sister’s husband, he told her that she did not have an “instinct” for business. She cried herself to sleep that night, but went ahead anyway.
With feigned irreverence, she launched a literary career and authored several novels, poetry, translations and features in Hindi. Conscious of conservative attitudes to women, her literary voice reflected those insecurities. It was with novels such as Chinnamasta, a tale about the struggles of women and their subsequent triumph in a traditional Marwari set-up, and Pili Andhi, about the travails of three generations of women in a joint family in Rajasthan held together by love and sisterhood, that she came to be known as a feminist icon.
In her autobiography, the first woman president of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce attempts to explain her life with a simplicity and honesty that is rare in a writer’s autobiography. There are no grand allusions to the self that most authors are prone to. At several points in the book, one feels almost voyeuristic reading about her life. This is deliberate, and towards the end of the book, Khaitan says, ‘Writing one’s life is like a striptease act: you are exposed to hundreds of eyes watching you uncover your naked self…’
Every person has shades that seem contradictory to the ideologies they espouse and Khaitan’s long-term relationship with Dr Saraf, who was married, was one such. Acutely aware of the fact, her autobiography is a candid account of being the ‘other woman’ in love.
‘As I go through my diary entries at the time, I wonder why I had put up with that life. It is not true that I did not get anything in return, but it was never enough to justify my complete and abject surrender to another person,’ she writes. Self-aware and caught between the ties of love and tradition, she offers a bittersweet account of her relationship through the decades. Always, contradictory feelings pulled at her.
‘...why I never went out alone, because I imagined my Marwari clan members talking behind my back… I imagined they would be looking at Dr Saraf and me and whispering among themselves. When his wife was present, I always stood aside and hid myself in a corner to become as inconspicuous as possible.’ Love, for Khaitan, was not always pleasant and her relationship dominated her thoughts on most days. This is represented in the book in monologues: ‘What is it about women that we feel obliged to please our men even if it means diminishing our self worth? Why was it always my job to placate him? Did I not need the same understanding? After all, I was earning more than him now.’
Growing up in the 1960s on heavy doses of literature, she was clearly influenced by Simone De Beauvoir. The relationship between Jean Paul Sartre and her idol, who were already a legendary couple, could have been a possible influence on her life. Clearly existential and acutely aware of her place in society as a woman, she writes that ‘what makes a single woman most insecure is the lack of financial independence and a caregiver’. She attempts to understand the dichotomy within herself that makes her crave independence as well as the approval of the man she loves.
This was a woman who learnt how to drive because she had heard somewhere that ‘driving a car is very empowering for women’, but the next moment laments how she longed to unburden her troubles on ‘shoulders that were strong’.
Plagued by loneliness throughout her life, the only reason she held on to her convictions was because she viewed society as the ‘other’. She often felt cornered because of her gender, but was aggressive in her reactions—whether it be her right to run a business, be in love or remain single. Her desire to be successful and independent stemmed directly from societal opposition to her actions. Tortured by her insecurities, she always looked inwards and although she did have a successful life, it was not a happy one as she was unable to break free of the expectations of society.
Although A Life Apart can be read in parts as a portrait of Calcutta of the time, replete with Marxist undertones, at its heart it will remain the story of a woman in love and an ode to her lover’s memory. It is for this reason alone that the autobiography ends with the death of her lover and his memorial service where ‘of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention’.
The book is part catharsis and part an attempt to understand her relationship with Saraf, convinced as she was that she was an outsider in the life of the most important person in her life.