My Mother, the Writer, and Her ‘Unspeakable Tale’

Mrinal Pande, India’s first woman editor of a national newspaper, on her writer-mother Shivani, and her life.

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My Mother, the Writer, and Her ‘Unspeakable Tale’

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Her publishers, fellow writers and editors had long been asking me to persuade my mercurial mother ‘Shivani’ to write her autobiography before it was too late.

‘Vultures,’ she smiled when I broached the topic finally, ‘wouldn’t they just love to pick some juicy family bones?’


Woman, Let The Gossip Flow

What my mother said, did make me wonder. Why on earth are writers, especially female writers emerging out of a closed conservative society, nearly always suspect in the eyes of their immediate colleagues and relatives as potentially dangerous and disloyal unlockers of familial secrets?

Even before her literary worth was established, my mother’s work was scanned and scrutinised by friends and close relatives – less for its literary excellence and more for some juicy and/or offensive personal gossip it might have contained.

Gaura Pant, aka Shivani, with husband Sukhdeo Pant. (Photo: Manushi)

My Mother: A Married Woman And An Author

Arranged marriages within the Chauthani Brahmin Samaj were the accepted norm when my parents were married to each other. As marriages went, my parents’ followed every rule in the book, and no one raised an eyebrow when a brilliant and beautiful twenty-year-old graduate straight out of Tagore’s Shantiniketan (and one of his favourite students), was married off to a widower in remote Almora in the summer of 1945.

Gaura Pant, aka ‘Shivani’ with her granddaughter. (Photo:

Shivani and Her Familial Bonds

A young Shivani. (Photo: Manushi India)

In her own life Shivani took a great interest in all the affairs of compliant and not-so-compliant ones in families she knew. She herself handled an inordinate number of cousins and clan-men and women with a rare compassion and good humour — the child widow forced to tonsure her hair and wear white — whose one secret wish, she told my mother, was to taste a dish of Korma from a hotel which Shivani procured for her at considerable risk to her own reputation...

These sparkling portraits earned her in equal measure, much acclaim from her publishers and readers and nasty verbal rapier thrusts from her relatives, several of whose children carried forward the legacy of hate.


Searching For The Father Figure

Fathers as politicians, farmers, officials and charming lazy rakes loom large in her (Shivani’s) fiction, mostly in their absence. There are plausible explanations for this preponderance of the absentee father.

Like her mother, Shivani too lost the men she loved the most suddenly and rather early in her life: her father when she was in her teens, her beloved elder brother before she was thirty and her husband before turning fifty.

It was thus almost inevitable that fatherhood in her work should loom large as a lopsided and privileged position that dominates and shapes (often against their will), the already complicated lives of women even after they are not around. And she turned again and again to men, in life as also in fiction.


The Woman As Author and Mother

Of what value are one’s own children for a woman writer? When we think of the lineage of great Indian women writers from Mahadevi Akka, Aranimal, Laldyad, and Meera Bai to Mahadevi Verma and Krishna Sobti, who have not one child between them, we may think perhaps motherhood poses a daunting obstacle for women wanting to write.

But Shivani disproved this theory. She raised four difficult children and several nephews in a small hill town with a harsh climate, cooking for them, tutoring them and catering to their multiple needs and still continued to write. And of course, she continued to break one of Kumaoni society’s least discussed rules: Thou Shalt not Write the Whole Truth about Parental and Conjugal Bonds.


A Daughter’s Analysis of Her Mother’s Fiction

Still, in the ultimate analysis, Shivani’s fiction celebrates life and youth and beauty... Her work reveals how we all exist in a complex matrix where democratic and unpredictable series of changes must impact not only the rich but also the poor, the troubled and angst-ridden young, and also all ageing and often bewildered parents. And she does not judge, nor pose pithy homilies so beloved of Hindi writers.

This, she says, is life, take it or leave it, leaping over narcissistic reflexes and pop psychology that seem to mark so much of the popular writing today. The title to her autobiography, Sunahu Tat Yah Akath Kahani, (‘Listen My Brother, To This Unspeakable Tale’) is based on her favourite poet Tulsidas’s lines, and like the poet, she sets out to tell the truth and nothing but.


The second half of Shivani’s autobiography that she wrote on her death bed, is also evocatively titled, Sone De (‘Let Me Sleep’), and comes from the epitaph of her favourite poet Nazir Akbarabadi: Thak sa gaya hoon, neend aa rahi hai, soney de/bahut diya hai tera sath zindagi mainey. (‘I am somewhat exhausted O life, let me sleep. I tried my best to keep you company.’)

(Mrinal Pande is a veteran journalist and author. This piece was edited for length.)

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Topics:  Kumaon   Shivani 

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