SARASWATI is the protagonist of ‘WILL SHALL OVERCOME,’ my first novel. She is strong and vulnerable, sensible and sentimental, soft and hard, clear-headed and mixed-up – she is a metaphor for you and me and everyone of us. Yes, she has had downs – she began with one. She wasn’t her mother’s favourite child; nor her father’s for that matter. They simply had too many kids – too many mouths to feed – and their love was spread thin. Then, Saraswati got married. It was sheer serendipity: a husband after her heart in a house that gave her so much space to think, to learn, to know. But then, her husband died. Saraswati had become a child-widow: widowed at fifteen, in a society that didn’t look kindly upon women who had lost their husbands. You wouldn’t believe that brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles can be so cruel. But they can – they are. And Saraswati, widowed, and orphaned as well, is abused by close relatives in her maternal home, and molested by an uncle she loved like a father. This, despite the fact that she is a new mother in addition to being a child widow. Hers could have been the story of so many other Indian women who had been married and widowed before they were out of their teens. But Saraswati chose to be different. She took the road less travelled by. She returned, with her infant son, to live with her in-laws. And that made all the difference. From being a helpless child widow, she grows up to become a mentor for destitute women and children. Saraswati’s life and times closely follows that of my own grand aunt, a child widow herself, who went on to become a vigilance officer in British employ, in the Madras province of the 1930′s and 40′s.
So, then, is it a ‘lived happily ever after’ story that meanders in pleasant contemplation? Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, because there may not have been a ‘story’ otherwise, no. Saraswati’s son dies in an accident: by a strange twist of fate, like Saraswati, her daughter-in-law has also become a widow at sixteen, and her child too will never see the face of its father. So then, is the story going to be a tear-jerker, a tale of two long-suffering widows in India’s much-written-about patriarchal society? Once again, and happily, no. For, the year is 1946 and the country is on the cusp of freedom; the spirit is one of resurgence, and a sweeping renaissance wishes to do away with all that is socially repugnant and usher in a fresh new way of life: one that is more kind, humane, liberal. Saraswati gets sucked into the movement, willy-nilly. She becomes part of an institution that works for destitute women and children. But, once again, a storm in the form of her son’s illegitimate son sweeps aside her serenity. She absorbs the shock and makes a secret pact with herself to provide for this new entrant in her life.
For a while, all is smooth sailing. But the calm is deceptive. Saraswati’s secret comes back to haunt her when her son’s illegitimate son follows in his father’s footsteps. But this child will not be fathered out of wedlock: the mother commits suicide, setting off a storm in the Press. The normally insouciant society is fired up by the death of the destitute woman who was to become a mother. How does Saraswati deal with this calamity? How does she cope despite a string of disasters marking the journey that is her life? This is what my first novel goes on to discover.
But Saraswati’s journey is also the story of the many good people she was fortunate to live with. How do their thoughts and philosophies meld with her own? And how do they help her bounce back to make lime juice every time life hands her a lemon? This too is what the novel is about.
A tapestry of history and philosophy, the gossip of the ignorant and the wisdom of the learned – all these, and the lives of the women who are the cause of the change in Saraswati’s life, and whose lives she seeks to change, are what make Saraswati’s story something that will, I hope, live with you long after you have laid down the book.
‘WILL SHALL OVERCOME’ is not just about one extraordinary woman, though Saraswati straddles the story like a colossus. Will Shall Overcome is also about ordinary people – the good, the bad, and the suffering – whose lives overlap with Saraswati’s and define the remarkable journey that is her own life. It appears that the will to live, the will to change, the will to take control of one’s life – these are the qualities that distinguish those who overcome from those who are overwhelmed. And this is as true of Saraswati as of the many others who people this novel. Hence its title.
Saraswati was married at eleven and widowed at fifteen. Her story, which spans the early to late twentieth century, would have been like those of many other child widows of her generation. She was harassed and molested in her maternal home, and not even being a young mother could protect her. As a widow, and an orphan, Saraswati had few options; but then, she chose to break with convention and return to live with her in-laws. That made all the difference.
The contrast between the home of Saraswati’s birth and the home she is married into is striking – and not merely because one is bubbling with people and their constant chatter, while the other is sombre and almost bereft of human sounds. The difference is more fundamental: it is in the divergent approaches to life and living that the elders in the two families adopt. This contrast, in essence, underpins Saraswati’s transformation: from a child bride with stars in her eyes to a pragmatic mentor for women who have lost their way.
On her life’s journey Saraswati is fortunate to meet and live with extraordinarily good people, but she is also deceived and misunderstood by some who are very dear to her. Personal tragedies dog her and she makes choices that make her vulnerable, cast doubts on her integrity. The public is quick to denounce her, and her life’s work is torn to shreds. What keeps her from crumbling every time she loses everything, almost? In dealing with the downsides, Saraswati repeatedly draws on her inner strength. This is a singular quality she has imbibed from her mentors; it is an attribute that also distinguishes many of the characters who people this novel, including the many women whose lives Saraswati seeks to transform. As the title indicates, in ‘Will Shall Overcome,’ it is strength of will that makes a difference between those who prevail over, and those who succumb to, the travails of fate.
While it is true that Indian women have been objectified by a patriarchal society, and the poor and the widows have been particularly vulnerable, there have been enlightened thinkers, scholars and activists who have supported them, often drawing upon the wisdom of India’s poets, seers and philosophers. There have also been many women who rebelled against the entrenched system, away from the limelight. Many of the characters in my novel are inspired by these lesser known images of the Indian motif. They draw upon rich philosophy as common sense and make it part of their ways of thinking and living. Thus, the poetry of saints such as the Azhwars and Kabir become part of the common discourse.
My own grand-aunt was a child widow, who went on to do a D.Litt in the pre-Independence era. She subsequently worked as a vigilance officer in the Madras province, under the British, and continued to work for an institution for destitute women till a year before she died, in 1981. While she herself, naturally, has been a major inspiration for the story, she maintained a log of her night rounds for many years, which has been a major resource for my novel. I have drawn on her real life interactions and encounters with people to recreate the lives of the women and the ambience of brothels that forms the backbone of the second part of my novel, Illam.
The warp and weft of a culture, a nation, overlap and merge to produce a distinctive design. Though the eye may perceive only the dominant image or images, no part of the design is inconsequential. This is what I feel strongly and this is the spirit that has guided my first novel, which has as its settings traditional brahmin households steeped in conservative as well as liberal thought, and brothels which are both sites of vice as well as places where victims of the society’s wickedness reside.