The English translation of Nirupama Devi’s Didi, by Alo Shome, is a vivid recreation of the fictional world crafted by the Bengali writer. The novel opens with pastoral scenery that is richly sensory:

There was a wood next to the village through which a narrow path – lit by sunlight filtered through the criss-crossing leaves and branches of trees – coursed, looking like a smile on a frail face. A spotted dove called plaintively from within a bamboo bush. On a high branch of a lemon tree, a pair of wild pigeons debated with each other, voicing their opinions with alternating high and low pitches that echoed throughout the woodland.   

An unusual marriage

Soon after, we encounter an 11-year-old girl named Charu, innocently playing in the dust under a mango tree – an act that seems like a childish pastime. However, as the story unfolds, we are abruptly confronted with the harsh reality of those times. Perceived as a “child-woman”, Charu is bestowed with womanly attributes at a tender age. Her mother, an impoverished widow, is anxious to get her married.

It is worth remembering that the novel was first published in Bengali in 1915, a time when child marriage was the norm. Contemporary readers may require some time to adjust their perspective and fully immerse themselves in the narrative. To be fair, the novel faithfully portrays a time vastly different from ours. Once readers acclimatise to this fictional universe, its complexity will become evident and easier to appreciate.

Didi intricately explores the theme of gender, encompassing progressive elements, radical possibilities, the tragic hold of tradition, and cruelty disguised as social customs. At the heart of it all is Surama, a woman of great calibre and an aura of confidence. She shines like a bright star, but as the vicissitudes of life take their toll, her light begins to fade.

Surama’s husband, Amar, marries Charu as his second wife when his hidden yearnings become entwined with his unusual circumstances. Charu is left in his care after her mother’s death. Despite his secret liking for her, Amar resists fully surrendering to his feelings. Charu’s disarming confession of love for him, and her adamant refusal to marry another, erodes his defences.

Becoming a neglected co-wife, an obstacle in the union of Amar and Charu, not only threatens Surama’s social standing but also wounds her pride. Although Surama is no saint, as evidenced by her desire to hurt and frustrate her husband, she gracefully comes to terms with reality. Surama’s adept handling of the family estate during challenging circumstances proves her worth and compels her husband to see her in a new light:

A woman who could save a major establishment from certain doom with just a glance of her benevolent eye was certainly deserving of respect. [Amar] developed a genuine respect for Surama. He felt ashamed when he remembered how vastly mistaken he had been about her even a few months back.

The most striking aspect of the novel is the extraordinary camaraderie between Charu and Surama. For the simple-hearted and ever-trusting Charu, Surama is like an elder sister. Charu places unwavering faith in her didi, who, despite her kindness, can become bitter. Seeing Charu’s pure intentions, Surama cannot help but respond with genuine concern and affection. To me, this sisterly bond is the most radical element of the novel. When women find themselves in competition due to their attachment to the same man, they unwittingly fall into what I refer to as the “patriarchal trap”. Their rivalry makes them vie for the man’s attention, thereby, boosting his ego and sense of entitlement. Consequently, the women weaken each other and erode their own self-worth. The sisterhood between the co-wives prevents that.

An unusual womanhood

When Amar finally develops romantic feelings for Surama, she firmly rejects his advances. By then, Surama views him as the husband of a younger sister and, therefore, treats him more like a brother-in-law than a husband. As long as Surama’s willpower remains strong, she does not waver in her loyalty to Charu, keeping Amar firmly at bay:

The longings of her earlier, adolescent spirit, tortured by Amar’s ill-treatment, had, long ago, moved to a hiding place deep inside her inner self. Somebody was knocking at its door, unexpectedly, asking her to open it. That “somebody” was Amar, who could have been her man but was not anymore. For, he was her dearest sister’s husband – entitled only to the kindness due to a brother-in-law...Charu had a right over Surama’s heart. For, was not she her younger sister? And Amar was now that younger sister’s husband. How can she ever fall for him? 

When Amar’s feelings become starkly evident, Surama removes herself from the situation. Upon her return to live with her father, she assumes the role of a mother to her young niece, Uma. Tragically, Uma finds herself widowed at the age of eight and later loses her biological mother. Despite the cruel fate of widowhood, there are certain factors that alleviate Uma’s suffering. She is sustained by the love, protection, and nurturance provided by Surama. What rips your heart is Uma’s simple acceptance of her condition. She is too young and inexperienced to fully comprehend the hardships and injustice she is facing:

The girl’s beautiful eyes filled with tears as she expressed her dismay. “Why, Ma? What is so sad about it? It doesn’t make me sad. The word ‘widowhood’ doesn’t disturb me at all.”

Surama can only sigh in resignation at the girl’s bleak future. Despite her tenacity, she is powerless before the restrictive social norms that deny widows the right to live with respect. She tries to shield Uma from temptations and earthly desires, fully aware of the steep price the girl would pay for defying tradition. Like a fragile, blooming flower, Uma is destined to wither away. Surama’s life is also tragic in its own way.

The novel delves into the depths of Surama’s emotional turmoil, bringing to the surface her gnawing regrets and nagging dilemmas. Despite her competence and unshakeable resolve, she is weakened and ultimately defeated by deeply ingrained gender ideologies and suppressed longings:

She still wanted to lead the life of a single woman, going against even her own innermost impulses. A hidden struggle in her heart and mind was pulling her apart. But who cared? The world at large was already convinced of her final defeat. Born as a woman she was expected to act like one. How wretched was the paradigm of her birth!  

For Surama, it all boils down to being born a woman. Therein lies the tragedy of her life and the times she belonged to. If being born a woman is not as great a tragedy as it once was, then we have travelled a long distance in our fight for gender equality. The protagonist of Didi cannot transcend her social milieu, and the novel conveys the sad reality of her entrapment.

Didi, Nirupama Devi, translated from the Bengali by Alo Shome, Rupa Publications.