In a piece for The Yale Review, Garth Greenwell writes about the perils of moral judgement as the primary mode of engagement with a text and sorting books into piles of righteous and problematic. “These responses sometimes seem to me an index of anxiety I see more and more in my students, in my friends and myself, a kind of paranoia about our own moral status, a desire to demonstrate our personal righteousness in our response to art”, Greenwell writes.

However, such responses are sometimes just a reaction against a certain kind of writing that seems disrespectful at a certain time when the truth is that the same writing can be a great piece of literature and serve as a true record of the social attitudes.

Kanyadan, written in the early 20th century by Harimohan Jha and translated by Lalit Kumar as The Bride is one such book. This nuanced translation of the culturally and politically important piece of literature, The Bride, captures the slice of early 20th century life of Mithila society. While it successfully captures the interior life of Maithil men, the story of Maithil women remains untold.

Life in 20th century Mithila

The Bride illustrates a culture of ill-matched marriages at the end of which, the bridegroom ends up abandoning the bride to a life of social isolation. In the very beginning, the reader is introduced to a typical Maithil household with its peculiar domestic squabbles. We also learn of the roles gender plays in the domestic space. The younger women of the house retreat into their corners when an elder male enters the premise. Their lives are limited to the inner courtyard of the house as is custom in dominant caste households.

The Bride exposes the backward and peculiar practices of the Mithila region of Bihar. With prose that is animated with emotions, the author successfully captures the people of Mithila and their daily lives. He writes of the unparalleled importance of weddings and its rituals in the lives of Maithil people – some of which are still prevalent.

In contrast to Buchia, the bride, her sister-in-law is a bookworm who reads Hindi language magazines and enjoys marital bliss. She has an affectionate husband who seems to appreciate a smart and educated wife. Her reading and intellect is a source of friction between her and her mother-in-law.

The male protagonist of the book, CC Mishra, is familiar to the modern reader – a shallow misogynistic man, ignorant of the realities of women, masquerading as a genius and social warrior. At times, even Earth’s gravitational pull isn’t enough to pull him back to ground realities as he dreams of an ideal Maithil girl who is born and brought up in rural Mithila but is modern enough to accompany him to the city and fulfil her duties of entertaining him as his companion. A match for his false genius. He seeks a partner who can “awaken and intensify his poetic sensibilities”. CC Mishra seems to dislike a social system that he himself appropriates and benefits from. Some of the most hilarious moments in the novel are when the author comments on Mishra’s stupidity.

Harimohan Jha also condemns the derogatory marriage markets, the Sabhagacchi, of Mithila where women are commodities being exchanged for money or for caste mobility. Money changes hands as women are traded. Jha captures a society that is in battle against itself – the modern versus the traditional – as people try to push the boundaries of caste and customs with the help of modern education.

Harimohan Jha exposes the hypocrisy and greed of Maithil Brahmins with instances that add humour to his writing. He also highlights the maltreatment of domestic workers by members of the dominant caste. When a domestic worker goes outside of Mithila, he is surprised to find that his caste is not as important as he was made to believe.

Leaving the bride behind

A foreword by Harish Trivedi groups this book with other writings that from the same time about the social evils that have cast a long shadow on the lives of women. While The Bride may address such matters, I would not say that it concerns itself too much with the social empowerment of women as much as it uses certain practices as sub-plots. Harimohan Jha believes in reform, but his ideas are far from radical.

Maithil women have been held back by the cruel institutions of child marriage and widowhood. The Bride falls short as it fails to shine a light on the lives of the young brides who are left behind, unloved and abandoned. While the readers get a detailed account of the desires of the bridegroom, the silence of the abandoned and unloved bride looms heavy. Jha offers us a glimpse into the psyche of an arrogant man masquerading as the 20th-century feminist, but the bride that he leaves behind is reduced to the caricature of an ignorant, silly girl.

That being said, one cannot deny the literariness of the text as Harimohan Jha peppers his prose with allusions – (of the wake left in the water by a steamer that) “like the desires of a child widow, it disappeared as swiftly as it surfaced”. Conversations between the characters take place in a mix of languages – Hindi and Maithili, to reflect the pluralistic culture of Bihar.

The Bride, Harimohan Jha, translated from the Maithili by Lalit Kumar, HarperCollins India.