Mannu Bhandari’s inspired body of work forges an important link in the evolution of modern Hindi fiction. Her quietly told stories amplify all the more because they are often recounted in a whisper. She is of her time, yet timeless. The late 1950s and early ’60s, when she wrote some of her most prominent novels, was a moment in India’s intellectual history when the young republic was scrutinising itself with a new self-awareness.

Married to the iconic writer and editor Rajendra Yadav, Bhandari was deeply immersed in the ideas and debates of her time. She was never flattened into the shadows by her husband’s fame and charisma, but resolutely pursued her own substantial writing career. The literary milieu around her was alive with excitement. Writers like Nirmal Verma, Mohan Rakesh, Kamleshwar, Krishna Sobti, Bhisham Sahni, Usha Priyamvada, and of course she herself with her husband Rajendra Yadav, were determinedly reinterpreting the narratives of their times.

The “Nayi Kahani” movement mirrored the angst of the new and emergent middle classes, and the conflicts that arose as they struggled for a contested individualism, and the right to articulate their hopes and desires, pinioned as they were in the timeless traditions of a conservative society. Those to the ultra-left invoked the peasantry and wrote passionately of the labouring classes.

The new paradigms of urban life, and the quotidian negotiations of everyday reality, included a questioning of the time-honoured allocation of male and female roles. The unfamiliar phenomenon of the working woman was viewed with suspicion, and the women’s brigade of the “Nayi Kahani” litterateurs wrote with feeling about the inequities of gender, and the unrealistic expectations of a backward-looking society.

It was in this context that Mannu Bhandari wrote her understated but hard-hitting fiction. Born in 1931 in Bhanpura, Madhya Pradesh, she grew up in Ajmer, in Rajasthan. Her father Sukhsampat Rai was a progressive minded freedom fighter, who pioneered the English to Hindi and English to Marathi dictionaries.

Her first short story, “Main Haar Gayi” was accepted by the literary journal Kahani in 1956, while she was still in Ajmer. After graduating from Calcutta University, she obtained a master’s degree in Hindi literature from Banares Hindu University, and later proceeded to teach Hindi Literature at the prestigious Miranda House, Delhi University.

Bhandari battled resolutely for every inch of intellectual and personal space all through her life. Her love marriage to Rajendra Yadav, already a notable figure in the literary world, drew her centre stage with a man who cast himself in the rugged masculine mould of Hemingway and other writers who took their overt machismo as their creed and assertion of identity.

Yet she determinedly held her own, and a writerly camaraderie prevailed even as their personal life together faced utmost challenges. The quiet heroism of her battle, the odds against women in a hyper-patriarchal society, the small victories of self-assertion and independence, sparkle in her stories and give them resonance even with the passage of time.

The uninhibited, highly experimental novel, Ek Inch Muskan was written in 1963, in collaboration with her husband, when Bhandari was in her early thirties, and describes their relationship from different perspectives. Her other significant works include Apka Bunty (1971), which sensitively brought to life the tragic conflicts unfolding within a child with divorced parents. The classic film Rajnigandha, based on her short story “Yahi Such Hai” was released in 1974.

Mahabhoj (1979) took on the criminalisation of politics and was written in the context of the Belchhi massacre. Swami (1982) was adapted into an award-winning feature film, directed by Basu Chatterjee. Her major short story collections include Ek Plate Sailab (1962), Yehi Sach Hai aur Anya Kahaniyan (1966), Teen Nigahen Ek Tasveer (1969) and Trishanku (1999). The autobiographical Ek Kahani Yeh Bhi was published in 2007 and is the story of her literary life.

Bhandari has referred to what she terms a “passionless neutrality” in her literary voice. The objectivity of her gaze, the determined eschewing of the dramatic, is a signature of her style. The other distinctive characteristic of her work was what she referred to as “shilpaheenta” – a sort of carefully crafted formlessness.

Bhandari, Krishna Sobti and Usha Priyamvada were the three prominent women writers who took on the entrenched patriarchy to which they were born. The women’s movement in northern India was spawned in part from their ideological commitment, and the strong women characters who inhabited their fiction. They led by example in their personal lives as well, and despite their very different literary styles and personalities, they gifted a legacy of women’s voices which could not be ignored to the dominantly male tonality of Hindi literature of that period.

Bhandari drifted apart from her talented and temperamental husband, who apart from his own prolific and highly regarded writing had revived the historic magazine Hans and brought it to great heights of literary excellence. Although they were separated, they remained friends until the end, a testament to the robust intellectual partnership that they shared.

Ill health prevented Bhandari from writing all that she might have, but her significant oeuvre is a testament to a time and moment, and to the nature of humans, of men and women and their complex relationships. With her enormous reach into popular culture via the many successful films based on her work, she was a truly transformative voice in the communication and understanding of feminine needs and desires, especially for the new middle classes, as they wrestled with the puzzles of modern life.

The stories in this collection, ably translated by Vidya Pradhan, are a testament to the inner lives of women, their strength and their fragility, and the odds they battle against, then and now.

The Best of Mannu Bhandari: The Wise Woman and Other Stories

The Introduction, by Namita Gokhale, excerpted with permission from The Best of Mannu Bhandari: The Wise Woman and Other Stories, Mannu Bhandari, translated from the Hindi by Vidya Pradhan, Roli Books.