The timeless Marathi memoir ‘Smritichitre’ reveals a woman and writer of indomitable spirit

A new translation of the autobiography, first published in 1934, captures Lakshmibai Tilak’s volatile marriage to poet Narayan Tilak, among other rich details.

Mr Tilak read voraciously in Rajnandgaon and also devoted time to studying. He had engaged a munshi to teach him Urdu. He read many books in English. I cannot say what they were, but his diaries tell us that he was studying the Bible and the Christian religion with intense attention. He corresponded regularly with the well-known Christian writer Baba Pudmanjee and Rev Dr Abbot. It is perhaps at their suggestion that he read the autobiographies of Rev Pudmanjee, Rev Karmarkar, Rev Modak and Rev Hari Ramchandra Christi and many comparative studies of Hinduism and Christianity. He was a prolific writer and many visitors came to discuss and debate with him. I could understand this. But the Christian business was completely beyond my understanding at the time.

I too read and wrote. Although my writing did not win Mr Tilak’s approval, I have continued to be an avid reader and writer from then till now. I write with any implement that is at hand – a lead pencil, a penholder, a quill or even a matchstick. An entry in Mr Tilak’s diary reads, “I am teaching Lakshmi a shloka. She is taking it down with a matchstick. Even if I repeat a stanza one hundred times, there’s nothing on paper. And what there is, is filled with mistakes. She works like a workhorse, but shoots her mouth off and loses people’s love.”

In another entry he says, “Vishnupant Gore came over. He returned Rev Baba’s autobiography which he had finished reading. He used filthy words about the Bible. We talked about this. Lakshmi lost her temper, and she said something quite idiotic. We had a small fight.” Mr Tilak was strongly influenced by the Bible and particularly the Sermon on the Mount. He regretted the small fight we had and he refers to it in his diary.

He writes, “There is no forgiveness or peace in me. Shiva, Shiva. What use is all the reading and thinking I do?”

In an entry dated 19 February 1894 he says:

“I feel drawn towards Christianity. It strikes me as a religion that brings peace, devotion, morality, tenderness and salvation to the human being. I might feel happier living in the ever joyous and fertile garden of this religion than amongst the trees and thorns, deep ravines and terrifying mountains, arid deserts and sweet mango groves that crowd the Hindu religion. But at this point, I dare not even utter the thoughts that are in my mind. Lakshmi does not even want to read. It is nothing but my fear of her and the fullness of her love for me that hold me back. Dear God, show us both the right way.”

Mr Tilak had been going somewhere every night. There was no way to know where. How could I find out? I could not tell the landlady’s son to tail him. He was too young. And if he was discovered, Mr Tilak might even beat him in a rage. So one day I decided I would investigate this myself. We had had a quarrel so our dinner thalipeeth had made it to the stove at nine o’clock. I had fed Dattu and he was asleep. Mr Tilak said, “I’ll go over to see Mr Khare and come back.” I closed the door but kept my eye on the crack. Mr Tilak turned towards Mr Khare’s house, allowing his shoes to creak loudly. After a few steps, he turned round and walked in the opposite direction, making sure that his shoes did not creak.

It was bright moonlight outside. Leaving the pan with the thalipeeth on the stove, I threw the door wide open and walked swiftly after him, while keeping a safe distance between us. Some way down the road it struck me that it would not be right to have a showdown in somebody else’s house. It would be better if I returned home before Dattu woke up. But I said, loudly enough for him to hear me, “That’s not the way to Mr Khare’s house.” The moment he heard me, Mr Tilak spun around. I too turned. I could barely see the road ahead. I wished the earth would split and swallow me.

I rushed home, bolted the door from inside and sat in the kitchen. The thalipeeth had turned to cinders.

Mr Tilak had followed me home and was now banging on the door. I dared not open it. Finally when the door seemed on the verge of collapse, I was forced to open it. Mr Tilak then gave me a proper pasting. When his rage was spent, we ate a cold dinner. The following morning, Mr Tilak was genuinely grieved to see my swollen back.

That day he had been on his way to visit an Englishman named Mr Milton. The following entry from his diary makes it clear that he used to visit him, read the Bible with him, discuss religious subjects and even eat with him:

“At Milton’s. Introduced to Mrs Milton. My impressions about Christianity and discussion with Milton about them. Read out several poems form the diary, etc. Am beginning to believe that of all religions, Christianity assures greatest joy on earth, is easiest to understand and the most blissful. I do not believe that Jesus is the son of god. I see him as a great soul with a generous heart. This I frankly confess. Home at 10. (February 13, 1894)”

Mr Tilak writes about what happened when he was eating with Milton:

“One of the constables here, Yeshwantrao, came in under some pretext four times to see this uncommon sight. Just then Milton’s daughter came in with rice and rotis. This convinced the man. For people like him, even to eat with somebody from another caste is one of the ultimate sins. But I too felt a moment of hesitation when I saw Yeshwantrao. See how lame one’s ideas are unsupported by courage. (February 19, 1894)

Met two American missionaries who wish to work in Chhattisgarh. One was elderly but the other was only eighteen. They, Mr Milton and I talked, read the Bible, had dinner, prayed. (February 26, 1894)”

Mr Tilak’s correspondence had increased a great deal these days. I had no idea whom he wrote letters to and who wrote letters to him. Many people told me that I should keep an eye on the letters that came for him and pass them on secretly to the local people. I did not consent to doing such a thing. I was once advised to burn the Bible that was kept on Mr Tilak’s table.

My response to the advisor was, “I have no idea what a Bible is. But suppose I did burn it, will it be impossible for him to get another? Will my burning one burn all the Bibles in the world? No. So I won’t burn this one.”

The diary discloses that Mr Tilak was corresponding with religious leaders in Mumbai and particularly with Rev Baba Pudmanjee. The following reference to Mr Tilak’s letters may be found on pages 269-70 of Rev Baba’s collection of experiences published in 1895:

“A few days ago I received a letter from an unknown scholar. He wrote to say that he had read my book Arunodaya (The Rising of the Sun), amongst others. He says, ‘This book is not embellished by any literary graces nor is it marked by a scientific perspective. Yet I have felt compelled to read it over and over again. It is filled with true feeling, devotion, simplicity and freedom from desire. I am in the process of reading your autobiography for the sixth time now.’ This scholar met a Christian gentleman with whom he had a discussion of which he provides a succinct account in the letter. ‘The Christian gentleman asked me if I had read the Bible. I answered that I had studied the Vedas and the Puranas. They are written by men who are even baser in nature than me. Now my Bible is this sky, this earth, these forests. In short, I am reading god’s life in nature.’ When he heard this, the gentleman said in English, ‘I do not have the powers to debate this point with you. But take this Bible and read it at least three times.’ I agreed and began reading it reluctantly only to keep my word. But as I read on, it began to seem to me that, as I have said above, this was not a fearful jungle but a lovely little garden. I sent the gentleman many books on his request.”

To judge by his diary entry for September 13, Mr Tilak appears to have gone on to make a detailed study of the Bible. Instead of his customary beginning, “Got up in the morning”, he has filled the page with notes like a student studying for an examination. When we were in Rajnandgaon, Mr Tilak composed several poems on Dattu. Very few of them have survived the assault of time. Those which have were composed during the time he took Dattu to Raipur. One contains a description of the games the child, “barely thirty months old”, played. Another gives an account of Dattu’s laughter and merry chatter when his father gave him a mouth organ. A third describes his feelings on kissing Dattu. “Even a thousand kisses do not suffice / But he must have one more.” There is one poem about the games Dattu played with a visitor’s son and another about his illness. “A child who is never still / Now lies unmoving / A child who never stops talking / Will not answer his mother’s calls.” Dattu was indeed the apple of his father’s eye.

Excerpted with permission from Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife, Lakshmibai Tilak, translated by Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger.

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