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The mastery and mystery of Hindi’s first woman novelist, Mallika


It is a striking image — a long-haired young woman looking out of the frame with half-closed eyes — and it is the sole surviving photograph of Mallika, who lived in 19th-century Banaras and wrote novels at a time when most women couldn’t read or write.

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The world’s first Hindi novelists: Bhartendu Harishchandra and Mallika. (Image courtesy Mallika ka Rachna Sansar by Vasudha Dalmia; published by Rajkamal Prakashan)

Next to her in the picture (dated c. 1873) is Bhartendu Harishchandra (1850-1885), a towering figure in the cultural life of Banaras, and widely regarded as the father of Hindi literature. They were both about the same age (in their early 20s, at the time the image was taken), and Mallika lived under Harishchandra’s protection until he died. He made provisions for her in his will, but three years after his death, she disappears from all historical records. No one has yet uncovered what happened to her thereafter.

And yet she was probably Hindi’s first woman novelist. Amid the continuing eclipse of women’s contributions, and in the wake of Women’s Day, I thought it would be a good moment for a look at this little-known writer.

I found out about Mallika via the academic and Hindi scholar Vasudha Dalmia’s eye-opening book Mallika ka Rachna Sansar, published in 2022 by Rajkamal Prakashan. Nothing is known of the writer’s early life, except that she was from Bengal, and was probably a child widow or abandoned by her husband. Harishchandra likely met her in Bengal or Banaras.

She was a poet too, but it is her three novellas — Radharani, Soundaryamayi and Chandraprabha aur Purnaprakash — that cement her status as Hindi’s first woman novelist. (Interestingly, the first woman Hindi short-story writer was also a Bengali: Rajbala Ghosh. Born in Mirzapur in 1882, she wrote under the name Bang Mahila. Unlike Mallika, though, her life is well-documented.)

Radharani (1883) is a translation of a short romantic novel by Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Soundaryamayi is probably a translation of a Bengali novel too, though there is no trace of the original. It was published in 1887 under Mallika’s name. Chandraprabha aur Purnaprakash came out a year later and is attributed to her and Harishchandra, but it is believed that Harishchandra merely cleared up the Bengali idiom that had crept in. It is now regarded as a Mallika novel.

I have read the latter two and found them engrossing, fast-paced and quite bold for their time. Soundaryamayi, named after its central character, is the tragic story of a girl who becomes a child widow at the age of 11. Hiralal, an orphaned relative, has been raised in the same house and, as they grow up, the two are drawn to each other.

Meanwhile, Soundaryamayi’s parents receive a visitor from Bengal, who tells them about the social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and his ongoing campaign for widow-remarriage. The girl’s mother is sympathetic, but her father fears societal disapproval too much to go down this road. The child is forbidden from meeting Hiralal, pines away and then, in a strange twist, her stomach starts to swell, so much so that there is talk in the village that she is pregnant. Even when her stomach reverts to normal, the rumours won’t stop.

Soundaryamayi’s persecution at the hands of samaj or society is relentless. Ultimately, her father sends her to live with an elderly relative far away, where she withers to skin and bones. Close to death, she tells her parents she wants to meet Hiralal for the last time. Her father tracks him down and her parents leave them alone for their last meeting. Soundaryamayi’s wished-for death, her “ichcha-mrityu”, is her rebellion. The father rues his cowardice. What use is samaj to him now that he has lost his daughter?

Fortunately for readers, Chandraprabha aur Purnaprakash has a happy ending. Chandraprabha is the daughter of a Kulin Kanyakubj Brahmin who has married four times. Her mother, Gunmanjari, was abandoned by her father and now lives with her brother in Banaras. As Chandraprabha grows up, her mother starts to worry about finding her a match. But Chandraprabha has lost her heart to a young man, Purnaprakash, who studies in Lucknow and visits Banaras to see his sister. The sister lives next door. The two fall in love.

As in Soundaryamayi, the mother is a loving and sympathetic character. All Gunmanjari wants is her daughter’s happiness and she decides to get the two of them married, though he’s not a Brahmin of the top tier. Even when her husband turns up with a much older Kulin Brahmin, whose hobby would appear to be collecting wives (he has 11 and wants her daughter as his 12th), she stands up for the young pair.

As Dalmia points out, the mother is the agent of change here. The novel roots for social reform, and the father and older groom, with their multiple marriages, are severely castigated by Gunmanjari and her brother.

Both novels deal with love that crosses boundaries and flies in the face of conservative norms. Both are about women, their desires and hopes. Both deal with child widows, polygamous men, women abandoned by their husbands — pressing issues of the time. Both underline the urgent need for change. And by writing them, Mallika earned her place in Hindi literature. I just wish we knew how her own story unfolded.

(To reach Poonam Saxena with feedback, email poonamsaxena3555@gmail.com)



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