Mannu Bhandari’s name will always be inscribed in golden words on the literary map of India. A great storyteller, who will always remain relevant as her stories are as touching to a common Indian homemaker as they are to intellectuals all over the globe, died on November 15 in Gurugram.
Her in-depth exploration of emotions were rendered effortlessly in her stories. Film producers in the 1970s rallied around her to seek permission for films based on her stories and novels, but she was adamant that she would not allow any twists and turns to be added to make them more appealing to the audiences.
I met her for the first time in 1994, when I was researching her stories for my MPhil thesis. Having read stories like “Nai Nukri”, “Yahi Sach Hai”, and others, I had expected a very modern woman with a crisp saree, some make-up, and exotic perfume – but to my surprise, there appeared a woman who was humble, down-to-earth in her demeanour, and traditional in her attire, which was not totally in-sync with her writings.
Her protagonists have always inspired me. When I was in class seven, we read a story by Mannu Bhandari, “Kamre, Karma aur Kamre” prescribed in the NCERT Hindi textbook. It was this story that me an instant fan of the author, and I decided I would study her works in the years to come. She subtly describes the conflicts, emotions, and ambitions of a middle-class working woman with great ease and beauty. The sensitivity is beautifully preserved, and yet narrated with an uninterrupted flow.
Her stories like “Yahi Sach Hai” had mass appeal. For the first time an author was fearlessly writing about the emotional conflicts of love. The nuances and choices were emphasised with such profundity that many producers were compelled to approach the author. The film Rajnigandha, which was an adaptation of her long story “Yahi Sach Hai”, was an instant hit and Vidya Sinha’s character was loved by almost every woman. The simple storyline was well received in the transforming 1970s.
Once, when I was in a meeting with her, discussing translations of her work that I was working on, she talked about her legal suit with Kala Vikas Motion Pictures. She told that she was unhappy about the changes in the story of “Aap ka Bunty” made by the producer for the film version, titled Samay Ki Dhara. I tried to explain my opinion that for a movie to be successful at the box office the story has to have some masala, but she argued that she would not violate the sanctity of her story for commercial benefits.
Films based on her stories were always loved by audiences, men and women alike. Her sensitivity brought tears in the eyes of tough souls as well.
Mannu Bhandari’s stories are relevant to the modern woman today as they were in the 1970s. Her stories revolved around certain everyday symbols such as a room, a mountain, a graveyard, or a new job. These symbols made it easier for the common (wo)man to relate to her stories.
She wrote extensively on the dilemmas of the modern working woman. In fact, I found during my research that at times her colleagues were offended as they felt that she had narrated their own stories, which were very personal to them and shared with her not with the intention of being published.
To them, it was a breach of trust. But for the readers these were literary treats. After all, every writer draws inspiration from the world around her. The offence taken might have been momentary, but her stories are eternal. Her protagonists are fiercely independent but chained to traditions as well. The personal ambitions were unfettered but did not threaten the conformist.
Mannu Bhandari was an important part of the Nayi Kahani moment and the fact that she was so widely translated speaks volumes of her art of storytelling. Readers will always remember this great author who portrayed women not as submissive weak individuals but as human beings who had the right to live, to love, and to make choices.
Neelam Bhandari has translated several of Mannu Bhandari’s stories, which appear in The Dusk of Life and Other Stories.
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