Relating to Dahigauri is a translation of the diary of the celebrated Gujarati poet, essayist and critic Narmadashankar Dave (1833-1886) and records his stormy interaction with his wife Dahigauri from September 1882 to October 1884 in Mumbai. The diary, which was suppressed at first was finally published in its entirety in Gujrati nearly a hundred years after Narmad’s death by the renowned scholar Ramesh Shukla in 1994.

The book gives the reader a rare look into the troubled relationship between a highly respected poet and a woman whom he has more or less abandoned for ten years in favour of a second wife; a woman who has become addicted to bhang and has possibly had an affair with a lower-caste man. Written in the form of a dialogue, interspersed with Narmad’s private thoughts, the diary gives us a portrait of an intelligent, spirited woman who holds her own in the face of relentless questioning, and of a man who, once a leading advocate of social reform, has now reverted to traditional Hindu beliefs, and is threatened by his wife’s defiance. He is determined to establish his authority over her. Financially and emotionally dependent on her husband, Dahi is ultimately forced to capitulate.

Excerpts from the diary:

5th September 1882

N: How did you spend the time at your father’s place?

D: I woke up at 6.30, drank tea, ate paan, rinsed out the tea cups that everyone had used, plaited my hair, and had a bath after everyone else had finished. I used soap. They did their best to stop me, but I told them that while I did not mind bathing last, I was accustomed to using soap and would continue to use it. After bathing, I washed my clothes. I did this for a month. (For the first two months, Motikaki washed them, but then I put a stop to it.) I relaxed and chit-chatted for a bit, did puja, and at 10 o’clock when the meal was ready, all of us put on our abotiyas [silk garments] and sat down to eat (we had fresh hot rotis); sometimes I collected the vessels and put them in the khaal and sometimes I would daub the kitchen floor with cow dung and earth. I would relax in the afternoon. I lay down, but could not sleep. I could not sleep at night, either. At 7 o’clock, I heated water on the stove and made tea for myself. I cooked dinner; sometimes I made bhakris. Then I joined the other women in the neighbourhood in Girjalaxmi’s verandah. I only ever went to Girjalaxmi’s place or to Lallu’s. I came home at 9 o’clock, had dinner, went upstairs, made my bed, lay there thinking and fell asleep around midnight.

N: Did you go to the Tapi river to bathe?

D: Only on auspicious days, when the neighbours came and asked me to join them. Never alone.

N: Did you go to the temple?

D: Never.

N: Did you go out to meet friends and relatives?

D: I only went to Lallu’s house in the neighbourhood. I read a lot there. I was scolded when I read at home; it was impossible to read even a single page.

N: Did you go to Mama’s house, or to Ravibhadra’s or Rukminikaki’s?

D: I went the day I arrived, but not after that.

N: How often did you visit Rukminikaki?

D: Not even once; she dropped in one time at my father’s place.

N: What did she talk about?

D: I just listened. Motikaki would talk to visitors, but I just listened and spoke only if I had something to say.

14th September

N: What are your views regarding religious observances like sitting apart during menstruation?

D: I don’t believe there is any religious sanction for this practice. I only observe it because Ayurveda warns of weakness during this time, and advises it to prevent the surroundings from becoming polluted and unhygienic. I try to observe the rules, but if I inadvertently touch someone I am not unduly concerned about it.

N: Do you believe you will earn good karma through puja, and the observance of shraadh and other rituals?

D: I don’t have any clear views on the subject, so I can’t answer your question. However, I see nothing wrong in doing puja and performing rituals like shraadh.

N: As regards our relationship, what do you think are your duties?

D: It is my duty to act according to your wishes. It is my duty to act in accordance with your commands. It is your duty to decide to what extent these can be relaxed.

N: I’m not asking you about my duty. That’s for me to decide. But since you’ve spoken so openly, let me ask you: if I forget to do my duty, will you also fail in yours?

D: Even if you sometimes forget to do your duty, it is my duty to act according to your wishes as far as possible.

N: What do you mean “as far as possible”?

D: It is my duty to act according to your wishes, but if I sometimes inadvertently fail to do so, then I’m helpless. I can only feel remorse.

N: Wealth. Love. Dharma. Which of these three attracts you most?

D: Wealth is not important. Love is love whether it redeems or destroys. And whether convenient or not, dharma is dharma. In that sense the two are similar. But there is greater freedom in love.

N: Do you agree that your craving for pleasure has triumphed over your dharmic obligations and made you forget your duties?

D: My cravings have not overpowered me completely. Feelings of compassion and a sense of duty still remain. Yes, in certain ways I have transgressed. I disobeyed your orders.

N: By disobeying my orders, you have failed in your dharmic duty and that is wrong. Whether judged by your notions of love or duty, don’t you think you have sinned?

D: Judged by the norms of love, I have disobeyed your orders. But that would be a sin only if my intention was to harm you. I did not intend to harm your reputation. I just didn’t think you would take it so amiss.

N: Setting aside the question of whether you intended to harm me, you obviously don’t accept that to disobey my express wishes is a sin.

D: There is no sin when there is no intention to deceive. I did not hide anything from you, so there is no sin.

N: You didn’t bother to inform me before disobeying my orders, true or not? You did not voluntarily admit that disobeying my orders is a sin, true or not? You agreed that it was a sin only after I asked you and you had no choice, true or not?

D: The answer to the first question is that you were not present; the answer to the second is that the opportunity to tell you did not arise; the answer to the third is that I was afraid of you.

N: You disobeyed me because you believe that husband and wife are equal, so where is the question of fear? What is there to fear in love? There can be no fear when love is truthful and pure. Only when it is sullied.

D: Fear because I kept the things [bhang, which Narmad also consumed] which you had discarded.

N: Is a woman’s relationship with her husband one of equality or dependence?

D: I would prefer one of equality, but I agree to one of dependence since my stridharma demands it.

N: So, on those grounds, have you or have you not committed a sin?

D: I have.

Excerpted with permission from Relating to Dahigauri, Narmadashankar Dave, translated by Tulsi Vatsal and Aban Mukherji.

Who was Narmad?

By Tulsi Vatsal and Aban Mukherji

Narmad, as he was known, was born in 1833 in Surat, in a Naagar Brahmin family. He spent his childhood in Mumbai, where his father Lalshankar Dave, a scribe, worked for the government printing press and later in the sadr adalat as a clerk. Narmad was educated in schools established by the British; but his father ensured that the boy had a traditional Hindu upbringing.

Narmad wore a janoi, learnt Sanskrit, and was taught the Vedas and other sacred scriptures for two hours a day by a learned brahmin. A shy and timid child, Narmad had few friends and did not participate in activities with other children. Whenever visitors came to his home, he recalls in his autobiography Mari Hakikat (which describes the first 30 years of his life, and which he privately published in 1866), he would disappear into a corner or cling to his mother.

Narmad had been married to a child-bride called Gulab in 1844 when he was 11. Gulab continued to live with her parents in Surat. In 1850, her father wrote to Narmad informing him that Gulab had reached puberty, and it was time that Narmad returned to Surat, took a job, and began married life. Narmad’s father Lalshankar would have preferred Gulab to move to Mumbai – he was keen that his son continue his college education. But Narmad, whose mother had died recently, was not unhappy to free himself from the restrictions of formal education and of his parental home.

He was 17 when he moved back to Surat, and had just discovered the heady “scent of a woman” as he writes in his surprisingly frank, yet in many ways evasive, Mari Hakikat. The next three years passed largely in a haze of sex and drugs. “I was very promiscuous after my mother’s death,” he confesses. “I did not open a single English or Gujarati book... I drank bhang and ate paak, and in private I dreamt of romance and fame.”

Narmad worked desultorily as a schoolteacher, first in Rander and then in Surat, to keep body and soul together. He set up an idealistic but short-lived youth movement aimed at raising awareness of social issues, edited a weekly newspaper and gave lectures. But, as he admitted, he was “intoxicated by the passion of youth.”

Married life with Gulab meant little to him. She was uneducated and an indifferent housewife and he had little in common with her. “My feelings for her were lukewarm.” Gulab lost her first child fifteen days after her birth, and she herself died after giving birth to a stillborn child, in 1853.

Her death was a turning point. Narmad roused himself from his lotus-eating stupor, and decided to go back to Mumbai. “Arise, awake do great deeds” an inner voice told him. Back in Mumbai he rejoined college, but although he fared well in the examination, he was bored by formal instruction. “I can’t remember anything I studied or recall the names of any of my professors except for Dadabhai Nowroji.”

Then in September 1855, inspired by the verses of the 18th century poet Dhira Bhagat, all of a sudden Narmad began composing his own poetry. It was an ephiphanic moment. “The joy I get from poetry is no less than the happiness others find in study, work and marriage,” he writes. “Poetry will be my life’s work. The rest will take care of itself.”

In 1856 Narmad left college for good. On the 23rd of November 1858, he resigned from his job. “I picked up my pen and with tears in my eyes, dedicated my life to the service of writing.” For the next 24 years he would concentrate entirely on research and writing.

In 1860, his second wife Dahigauri, the daughter of a respected and learned shastri, whom he had married two years previously, came to live with him. Their marriage was childless but seems to have been a happy one. Dahi came from an educated family and was able to share his interests. (For instance, she actively helped Narmad to collect the folksongs on which Narmad’s book Songs of Nagar Women was based.)

Narmad was now actively involved in the nascent movement for social reform. He advocated widow remarriage and argued passionately against child marriage, the caste system and other social evils through his poems, essays and Dandiyo, a fortnightly which he published at his own expense. He was the only reformer who dared to face the formidable Vaishnav priest Jadunath Maharaj in an open debate on widow remarriage in 1860, and was obliged to take the wrestler Bawa Kisandas as a precaution against the wrath of the crowd.

However, for Narmad, social reforms went beyond attacking particular retrograde practices; they were the stepping stones over divisive categories of caste and religion: what was required, he believed, was the creation of a wider community based on a shared language and pride in a shared culture (deshabhiman). The sentiments expressed in his poem Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat (Hail to thee Glorious Gujarat) struck a chord in the hearts of his readers.

He was also writing prolifically, in a wide range of genres. Traversing uncharted territory, Narmad single-handedly widened the range and scope of Gujarati literature, transforming and enriching the language on the way. He gave Gujarati its first autobiography, Mari Hakikat (1866), its first text on prosody, Pingalpravesh (1857), and a few years later, its first comprehensive dictionary, Narmakosh (1876).

He tried his hand at writing history in prose: Surat ni Muktesar Hakikat (1886). (All his books were printed as he wrote them, a few pages at a time.) Influenced by English poetry, he broke free from the predominantly religious themes of earlier times and composed subjective (atmalakshi) poems on love, as well as on wider issues like social reform and patriotism.

His anthology of poems, Narmakavita was published in instalments in 1858-59. Narmad bequeathed to the Gujarati language a style that was straightforward, yet majestic, modern, yet rooted in local culture. By 1864, writes Navalram, the poet was “not only the pride of his family (kuldeepak) but also the pride of his land (deshdeepak)” He was only 31. No other poet had achieved such fame in so short a time.

It was in 1865, when Narmad was riding high on a wave of self-confidence and popularity, that he took the drastic step of offering shelter to a young widow named Savitagauri, and invited her to live in a separate wing of his own house. Conservative elements in the Nagar Brahmin community were horrified, and despite his celebrity status, he and his family were socially ostracised by the clan. His wife Dahi’s response to the event has not been recorded.

Four years later, in 1869, Narmad went a step further. Sheltering a widow in his own home had been bad enough; now he decided to marry a widow, and that too, one who was pregnant. His marriage to the pregnant 22-year old Subhadragauri was an outrage against all accepted social norms, especially since Naagar Brahmins did not permit a second marriage while the first wife was still alive. It is not surprising, therefore, that Narmad chose to solemnise this marriage in secret.

What led the poet to take this extreme step?

Narmad had spoken and written at length about the many deprivations (especially sexual) widows had to suffer and how “the fulfilment of sexual needs takes immoral forms, either by consent or coercion”. He had graphically described the frightful consequences of pregnancy, and had championed widow remarriage as the only way out.

“Conservative elements had always dared Narmad to prove his reformist credentials,” explains Natvarlal Desai in Uttar Narmad Charitra, “and Narmad had said he would do so when the appropriate occasion arose. Then a young woman from a respectable Nagar family named Narmadagauri [Subhadragauri] was widowed. …She fell in love with Narmad and asked him to marry her. But since Narmad’s wife Dahi was still alive, he was hesitant to do so, and he discussed the matter with Dahi. He considered separating from Dahi after providing for her needs and he put forward this proposal to her, and they argued over this. Dahi totally refused to accept the idea of separation. Instead she agreed to accept any condition he chose to impose on her, even that of complete submission (dasipanu). As a sensible, mature woman who worshipped her husband, she told him, ‘You are a man and you are entitled to act as you please; I will not put any obstacles in your way.’”

This view is held by some scholars even today. For instance, as Saroj Pathak opines[9], “She [Dahi] must have suffered a lot. But,” she adds, “this Aryasannari (Aryan cultured woman) had started new life with her self-control, determination and austerity. Dahi’s sacrifice was like that of a great pious woman...Thus Dahi had devoted her whole life to the service of her divine husband Narmad.”

It is hard to reconcile this submissive, austere Dahi with the woman in Relating to Dahigauri who tells her husband that “after all there were women in this world who were not ashamed to do what they wanted; that, alas, both sin and virtue were a part of life; that women had the same rights as men.”

An alternative version of the event is offered by Ramesh Shukla. Subhadragauri, he tells us, had been widowed as a child, but had continued to live at her parent’s home. “Subhadra’s mother-in-law was Narmad’s maternal aunt, and had a soft corner for him....Narmad was a frequent visitor to Subhadra’s home. She was very impressed with Narmad’s reformist ideals, especially regarding remarriage. They fell in love, and this resulted in a situation which made it imperative for them to marry...”

According to Shukla, the conversation between Dahi and Narmad that Desai refers to did indeed take place and was, as he says, recorded by Narmad in his diary. But it was not a conversation between a concerned husband and a dutiful Hindu wife, who acquiesces to Narmad’s second marriage with Subhadragauri. The conversation presented in UNC was “not connected in any way to [the question of] Narmad’s second marriage. The conversation did not take place in 1870. It is part of a continuous diary [which Narmad kept] from September 1882 to May 1883.”

Whether or not Narmad married Subhadragauri out of love or the courage of his reformist convictions, it must have required tremendous courage for a public figure like him to defy convention and incur the moral condemnation and hostility of orthodox society. The secret marriage created a huge scandal.

Narmad moved to Mumbai with his new wife, leaving Dahi behind in Surat. In 1870 Subhadragauri (now known as Narmadagauri) gave birth to her son Jayshankar, whom Narmad brought up as his own. After moving between Mumbai and Surat Narmad settled down permanently in Mumbai. Dahi was left to her own devices for long periods.

Narmad was a literary celebrity in Mumbai. Prominent members of society visited him at his home and public functions were held in his honour. He continued to publish at a furious pace. From 1871-76 he was occupied on the very ambitious project of writing the history of the world in Gujarati (Rajyarang). His study of world civilisations and cultures, with their distinctive religions and social orders made him introspect, rethink and reassess the path that the social reform movement in India had taken.

He came to the conclusion that reforms, inspired by an alien culture which was based on the primarily materialistic, transient and outward looking dharma of pravritti could not be forced in haste on a traditional society which was focussed inward and based on the eternal dharma of nivritti. The pace of reforms had to be gradual and had to emanate from within a society’s own structure, if they were not to be just skin-deep. Western norms, Narmad felt, had weakened the ancient foundations of Hindu religion and culture, and had created confusion and doubt in peoples’ minds. They could not serve as a solid foundation for social change in India.

This conviction, combined with a disillusionment with the actions of various armchair reformers transformed Narmad from being a passionate advocate of reform in the 1850s and 60s to an ardent votary of sanatan dharma, finding security and stability in tradition. A man who, after his father’s death in 1864 had given away the household images to a brahmin neighbour “not out of gratitude for performing the last rites but because idols should not be worshipped”, and who had unequivocally denied the divine authority of the shastras, jettisoned his earlier views and, by 1880, at the age of 47 became “a complete believer”.

He reaffirmed his total faith in Hindu scriptures and denounced reformist groups like the Arya Samaj. He emphasised the importance of following all prescribed religious and caste rules, gave only conditional acceptance to child marriage and approved of widow remarriage only under exceptional circumstances.

Narmad’s life was now ruled by strict ritual observances. He decided to renounce “wine, meat and extramarital sex”; and to have sex “only at night” and only “after ascertaining the days on which I should abstain.” He would not shave on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday as well as on certain other days of the month. In the Dharmatantra he describes in great detail the various rituals he performs, the mantras he recites, the fasts and the penances, the temples he visits and the brahmins he feeds.

But behind this obsessive religiosity can be discerned a mood of despondency and silent despair.

His writing had begun to suffer. He continued to write poetry, and though, until his death, he was considered to be a great poet, he “never reached the heights [of his earlier work] again.”

His finances were in a precarious state. His unstinting generosity, the money he had spent on constructing Saraswati Mandir in Surat, which housed his private library and was often used for holding lectures; the expenses incurred on publishing Narmakosh; his affluent lifestyle in the manner of his Parsi friends had led him into considerable debt. He was unable to pay the mortgage on his Surat home.

In 1876 he started writing for the theatre in order to earn a living. These plays, says Navalram, “are of little merit, written as they were to keep body and soul together.” In one troubled dream that Narmad describes in Dharmatantra, he unexpectedly finds five hundred rupees; in another, he digs his hands twice in the sands of Chowpatty on his way home from Babulnath temple, hoping to find the parasmani (philosopher’s stone).

Narmad’s personal life was also in difficulties. Conflicting ideas of Western social liberalism and shastric injunctions especially about the position and role of women had created a turmoil in his mind, which he now resolved by returning to the ideals of sanatan dharma.

Narmad prays to goddess Ganga to purify the three women in his life (Narmadagauri, Savita and Dahi), to make them “embodiments of virtue and exemplars of true Aryan womanhood.” He wishes them to be more like Sita, to love him and do their duty by him. But, neglected by her husband and addicted to opium, Dahigauri has been reduced to selling her jewels and is rumoured to be having an affair. And Narmad is tormented by the possibility that Savita has fallen in love with another man. He cannot stop thinking about her.

Thoughts of her intrude even when he is engrossed in religious activites. “You know it is not right to live with a fallen woman”, he admonishes himself. “Is she a goddess or a witch?”

Again and again, Narmad begged the gods to free him from his troubles. Finally, on 20 January 1882, he was forced to break the vow he had made to devote his life exclusively to writing. He reluctantly accepted the job of secretary for the Goculdas Tejpal Charitable Trusts, which his friends had secretly arranged for him.

It was an agonising decision. “I am walking into slavery,” he told his friends as he made his way to work. “It broke his spirit completely,” writes Navalram, “I never saw the poet really happy after this... And he could never bring himself to speak about the job.”

A few months earlier, in September 1881, Narmad had gone to Surat where he appears to have apprised Dahi as well as Savita of his financial situation. In May 1882, he sent word through his Mehtaji (confidential secretary) ordering Dahi to move out of the house immediately and go to her parental home. This episode caused a huge scandal in Surat and did considerable damage to Narmad’s reputation. Finally, at the urging of various friends and relatives, Narmad sent for Dahi. She arrived in Mumbai on September 4th 1882.

Relating to Dahigauri is a record of what follows. We see Narmad relentlessly interrogating Dahi in an attempt to establish the authority which he, as a husband, feels is his right, and Dahi defying him every step of the way, refusing to conform to her role as a pativrata.

She argues with him about everything – from menstruation to whether the relationship between man and wife is one of independence or equality – fortified perhaps with the bhang to which she is addicted. We see Narmad, himself addicted to bhang, making well-intentioned but cruel efforts to wean her from her habit. And witness his desperate attempts to keep the mess he has made of his domestic life from the public gaze.

In the last year-and-a-half of his life, Narmad’s health began to fail. He was afflicted by an illness that left him practically bedridden. Yet he enjoyed the company of visitors, “and even an hour before his death he was carrying on a conversation, his mind as sharp as ever...”

On Mahashivratri, in February 1886, aware that the end was approaching, Narmad fasted and seating himself on a deerskin, called his two wives, his son and Rajaram to him. Asking them not to grieve for him, he addressed Dahi: “It is you who I have harmed the most by my licentious behaviour, Dahi....Though I have sinned gravely against you; you have never failed in your duty towards me...” Begging Dahi for forgiveness, he entreated Subhadra to act towards her with respect after his death.

Narmad died on 26 February 1886.