Novelisations of film scripts tend to be assembly-line ventures meant to capitalise on a successful or high-profile movie. The authors usually don’t have much artistic control and rarely do the books even enter a second print run, let alone make for literature of notable quality. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water, based on the script of Deepa Mehta’s controversial film about the lives of widows in 1930s Benaras, is an exception. This is a powerful, moving book that complements the film but also holds up well as an independent work – with quite a few passages that are more compelling than their cinematic equivalents.
It couldn’t have been easy for a writer of Sidhwa’s stature to work on such a project: “I was hesitant because I had never written within the confines of a structured story before,” she admits in her Acknowledgements. One wonders if Deepa Mehta should have been given co-credit – after all, the story and the dialogue are mainly by her. But somehow (and is this because Mehta herself has been influenced by Sidhwa’s previous work, or because the two women’s styles and thematic concerns are naturally similar?), Water has the trademarks of Sidhwa’s finest writing, most notably her book Ice Candy Man (which was the basis for Mehta’s last film, Earth). Those trademarks include nuanced but economical characterizations and the infusion of gentle humour into even bleak situations.
With a quietude that’s unsettling, Water introduces us to eight-year-old Chuyia, transported from a child’s carefree life and a loving family to a widows’ ashram on the fringes of society. Still years away from a proper understanding of the ways of the world, she is told that she no longer exists as a person – all because of the sudden death of a husband she had barely even met. (“Once widowed, a woman was deprived of her useful function in society – that of reproducing and fulfilling her marital duties.”)
Slowly, Chuyia overcomes her sense of dislocation, makes friends with other women in the ashram and stirs a few hackles with her directness in situations where others simply follow the letter of the ancient texts. “Where is the house for the men widows?” she innocently asks at a gathering, producing instant shouts of outrage: “God protect our men from such a fate!” However, the child’s words have an effect on the middle-aged Shakuntala, who tries to conquer her own inherent conservatism by questioning the scriptures. Meanwhile, a progressive-minded young idealist named Narayan falls in love with Chuyia’s friend Kalyani, a beautiful widow whose earnings as a sex worker help in running the ashram.
One of Sidhwa’s strengths is the ability to make a point without underlining it. She does over-stress the irony in a couple of places – for instance when Madhumati, the ashram head who has forced Kalyani into prostitution, says, “We must live in purity, to die in purity.” But the overall restraint with which the story is told helps strengthen the impact of the more disturbing moments. By drifting almost unnoticeably from the commonplace to the horrific, Water implicates the reader: when the widows celebrate Holi, for instance, one is temporarily lulled into thinking that they have their own self-sustaining little community, that maybe their lives aren’t so bad after all. But then something happens to demonstrate the spuriousness of this thinking and remind us that circumstances have forced them into a life of compromise.
Despite the fact that the ashram has its own internal politics, and that we are constantly rooting for some characters (Chuyia, Kalyani, Shakuntala) against others, we are never allowed to forget that all these women are victims of a cruel, unthinking tradition which exists for no better reason than that “it has always been so”. Even Madhumati, variously compared to a “beached whale” and a “satiated sea-lion”, and despicable in her treatment of Kalyani, has a human side. She too was once a young girl with dreams, and in the parasitic monster she has become, we can see how one evil begets another. Elsewhere too, Sidhwa does a fine job of detailing the contradictions and layers of intolerance in society; on hearing the news that Mohandas Gandhi has proclaimed the Untouchables to be children of God, a eunuch wonders aloud “if hijras can be considered God’s step-children”.
The growing influence of Gandhiji does in fact seem to indicate a better future for tradition’s victims, and Water ends on a tenuous note of hope. But the story is still just as relevant; the violent protests that nearly aborted Mehta’s film are a reminder of how unthinking adherence to tradition can lord it over reason and humanity.
[A slightly shorter version of this appeared in today’s Indian Express.]
P.S. I wasn’t too impressed by the film – it was way too static and didn’t seem to recognise the difference between being restrained and being lifeless. I got the impression that Mehta was too consciously eschewing anything that would have opened her film up to charges of melodrama/other ills associated with Indian cinema. Scene after scene just went by flatly and a couple of the key moments cried out for a more vibrant treatment (and by that I don’t mean they should have been accompanied by flashes of lightning and loud background music). One crucial climactic scene – the moment of revelation on the boat – fell flat partly because of the limited acting abilities of John Abraham and Lisa Ray. But Abraham and Ray are the most obvious soft targets, and this film is problematic for other reasons too.