Author: Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya
Translated into Hindi from Bengali by N. Chakravarti.
My eye was arrested by a book in Vietnamese language when I was browsing among the shelves of Jungman Neighbourhood Library in Houston. My mind had just started forming the thought, if they have books in Vietnamese.... when my eye fell on a shelf full of Hindi books. The pickings were slim, there were barely fifty books on that shelf. Quite understandable, they were trying to represent world literature and had to cater to so many languages. I had to take one, it had been a long long time since I read a book in Hindi. I picked Parineeta by Saratchandra. This was the only book by him here.
Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya was a renowned Bengali author and this book has been translated into Hindi by N. Chakravarti. It is more like a novella really, a longish short story. It took me perhaps an hour or so to read it. I am pretty sure everyone knows the story well. Lalita lives in Calcutta with her uncle who has been her guardian ever since her parents died. Her uncle Gurcharan makes very little money and is a troubled man because he has to provide dowry for his daughters. He has already mortgaged the house to his greedy neighbour Navinrai for a loan which he incurred when he was marrying off his second daughter. He is very fond of Lalita but is worried about her marriage.
Gurcharan has two neighbours that his family is very close to. Navinrai on one side and Manorama on the other. Navinrai's house is connected to Gurcharan's by way of a common roof. The children keep dropping into each others houses at all hours. Navinrai is a greedy man but his wife Bhubneshwari is a kind and an affectionate lady who is particularly fond of Lalita. Their younger son Shekhar is also very fond of Lalita.
Things get moving when Manorama's cousin Girin comes to stay with her. Girin is attracted to Lalita and tries to spend time with her. Shekhar is jealous and it changes the way he looks at Lalita. On an impulse they exchange garlands with each other. Shekhar kisses Lalita to seal the deal. Things happen to keep the couple apart. Their marriage is secret and sacred - to Lalita at least. Their families, however, fall out with each other.
Navin Rai is angered when Gurucharan pays off his loan and gets back the papers to his house. Navin Rai was plotting to turn Gurucharan out of his house and build it over as a new unit for his second son, Shekhar. Gurucharan, under the influence of Girin, turns to Brahmo Samaj. Navin Rai is furious at Gurucharan for losing his religion and constructs a wall between their homes on the roof, stopping the easy access they had to each others house.
I will stop here with the plot. Those who have seen the movie or read the book will know how things unfold for the couple. There are two Hindi movies based on the book that I have seen. One is Pradeep Sarkar's and the other is Bimal Roy's film made in 1953 starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as Shekhar and Lalita. The Bimal Roy movie is far superior to the one made in 2005 by Pradeep Sarkar. For one, the actors in the Bimal Roy movie do not get larger than life. Second, the movie follows the book very closely. Even the dialogue from the book is used to great effect in the film.
The Bimal Roy film departs from the book in a few major ways. In the book Lalita is barely fifteen at the time of the exchange of garlands, in the movie her age is not discussed but she seems to be older. In the book Girin marries the younger daughter of Gurucharan who is much younger than Lalita, but in the movie the girl is as old as Lalita. The ages of these girls were tweaked with to keep in mind the 'modern' times as the book was written in 1914. The movie chickens out of the issue of Gurucharan changing his religion. In 1953 this idea was still very radical, and not something a viewer would accept easily.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
It is a very slim book. Yet Saratchandra delineates each character with care. Interestingly, the good and the bad characters are married to each other. Navin Rai is greedy and divisive. He would happily toss Gurucharan out of his house and force him into penury just to add more to his wealth. He is deeply entrenched in his regressive views and is untouched by any feelings of kindness. His wife, Bhuvneshwari is the epitome of kindness and love. She is forever trying to make things easier for others. She wants Shekhar to look at the girl he is to marry before committing to her. She loves Lalita like her own daughter and worries about her. When she learns about Gurucharan's conversion, she is not disgusted, she understands why he did that and wants to leave a door open for him.
Lalita is a submissive girl, docile and yielding. She is firm about not giving up on Shekhar, even though he does not give her any positive signal post their 'marriage'. Her firmness of character and loyalty to Shekhar wins him back in the end. Shekhar is the most interesting character and the one that develops the most. At the start he is bossy about Lalita, then he gets very jealous when she is in proximity of Girin. After the impulsive exchange of garlands with Lalita, he kisses her on the lips. Later he feels it was a flash of physical attraction and also is too scared to follow up the wedding with acknowledging it. He is relieved when Lalita leaves with her family to go with Girin to Munger, he feels like he need not be responsible for her any more. After she goes, he starts missing her and finally realises he is in love with her.
I was shocked at Lalita's young age in the book. It was written more than a hundred years ago, I had to remind myself. Saratchandra's views on the ills of society were quite radical. Gurucharan's problem is that he has four daughters and has to marry them off with decent dowry each. His back broke when he had to marry his second daughter. He took a private loan from Navin Rai by mortgaging his house. Now he finds himself unable to pay back his loan. He feels ditched by his community when they are quick to lay down rules but not generous enough to help him. In fact, despite the fact that he is also a Brahmin like Navin Rai, the two do not even contemplate a wedding between their children because Gurucharan is too poor to afford the kind of a dowry Navin Rai expects.
Saratbabu also admitted that Shekhar kisses Lalita out of physical attraction, in itself quite a forward looking, I think. Something that Bimal Roy wasn't ready to depict on screen even in 1953.