Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli

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Below is an extract from my article on Rama Mehta’s novel Inside the Haveli. The article was published in South Asian Review vol. 30. No. 1. September/October 2009. pp. 286–301. It is titled “Emplotment of Aristocratic Nation in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli

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In South Asian debates, the nostalgic mode of cultural memory deploys binary oppositions such as ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ so as to defend the perpetuation of cultural orthodoxy. The terrain of postcolonial debate has witnessed the resurgence of this kind of defence of cultural orthodoxy in the name of critique of modernity often. One of the sites for the assertion of cultural orthodoxy has been the space of ‘nation’. In as far as ‘nation’ is a modern form of sociality in South Asian societies it is fraught with issues of derivation. One familiar trope in the critiques of nationalism is the one based on its ‘alienness’. Such a critique is usually predicated upon a defence of cultural orthodoxy: the brahminical patriarchy. The charge of ‘alienenss’ in such critiques is a reductive examination of the phenomenon of nationalism ignoring the plural conceptions of nation. The labelling of nation as a derivative discourse legitimizes a hegemonic notion of cultural interaction whereby the reconfigurations effected in the concept are devalued. These critiques of nationalism ignore contestations of nation and nationalisms by rendering them as singular. Thus, an important critical engagement evident in past and present mass movements is negated by this critique though it has acquired greater visibility.

Nations are not imagined into being in abstraction but through associations based on shared practices and dissociations based on differentiations. These two processes are never complete or coherent, thereby leading to an unstable production of identity that is forever in the making. This instability in and the continuous production of the collective identity hence characterises nation as a field of contestations. ‘Nation’ as a collective identity is continuously under construction and forever pluralized. Beginning with this constructivist notion of nation, this paper examines the configuration of collective identity in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli. The argument I present here is that the novel valorizes feudal aristocratic patriarchy via a plea for preserving the local tradition by ignoring the class and gender refractions therein.

Inside the Haveli is Rama Mehta’s only novel though she has published academic books and children’s fiction. Her works of fiction for children are Ramu and Life of Keshav. Rama Mehta’s academic books include The Western Educated Indian Woman (1970), The Divorced Hindu Woman (1975), and India: Now and Through Time (co-author) (1971). The novel was published in 1977 and thus 1970s is the period in which Rama Mehta published all her works. Significantly, the novel and the non-fictional books have common concerns as they all circle around the issues of women’s relation to tradition and modernity. The particular intervention that this novel made in the contemporary debates about the conflict/continuity between tradition and modernity was enthusiastically received. This is apparent in its positive reception. The novel won the 1979 Sahitya Academy Award and was heralded by established critics such as Srinivass Iyengar:

Inside the Haveli is a sensitive piece of realistic fiction, even an authentic sociological study, and it is written with a naturalness and poise that are disarming and effective at once. The evocation of scene, character and especially of atmosphere is almost uncanny… The balance between repose and movement is well sustained, there is romance but no cheap sex, there is tension but no violence, and there is a feeling for the values and verities.[i]

Published at a time when in India the desire for modernity was strong even as pride in tradition was fierce, Inside the Haveli is a novel that sets up a face off between tradition and modernity and it is seen as offering the best of both the ‘worlds’.[ii] Its popularity seems to be not so much due to resolving the conflict between tradition and modernity, but for favouring tradition and maintaining a conservative outlook, both in ideological framing of the narrative as well as the style in which it is rendered. That the novel’s ideological framing of modernity can at once gather up pedagogic import is suggested in the praise showered on it by Viney Kirpal:

Rama Mehta’s intentions in writing this novel are to help the western educated Indian reader regain his belief in his own traditions… The resolution of the novel is that Geeta gradually grows away from the westernised perception acquired from her education and learns to appreciate the dignity, solemnity, meaning and worth of indigenous traditions[iii].

This paper proposes to examine closely the deployment of the thematic of tradition and modernity and explore how this stages ‘nation’. The analysis of the novel takes into account the institution of two temporal and spatial categories in the novel, one representing the traditional aristocracy inhabiting the haveli and the other representing the world outside it which is integrated into nationhood. The novel then goes on to valorize the former, defending its socio-cultural practices by glossing over the inherent oppressiveness. Contrary to its initial claim of common bond among the inhabitants of the old city of Udaipur, the novel reveals processes of othering within the old city based on class and gender. It ends up contesting the horizontal life effected by nation on behalf of the aristocracy, the defence of which is made in the novel by defending its traditions. The novel, however, effectually silences the dissent based on class by portraying the generosity of the aristocracy. Thus, in this novel, contestation of nation as a modern collectivity is undertaken from the point of view of the aristocracy. It deploys the thematic smoke screen of the conflict between tradition and modernity only to naturalize the perpetuation of patriarchal hierarchy.

Inside the Haveli demarcates its narrative paradigm by instituting a division between the magical time of traditional community and the flat horizontal time of nation-state. The former derives its enchanting character in its difference from the memory-less domain of the latter. The novel opens with a highly resonant description of Udaipur’s ‘Old City’ in its distinction from the new township: “Udaipur was once the capital of the state of Mewar; now it is only a town like many other towns in Rajasthan.”[iv] (3) The contrast invoked in the words ‘once’ and ‘now’ introduces the nostalgic and rues the levelling of Udaipur with ‘many other towns’ in the time of the nation-state. The insertion of Udaipur into the flat horizontal plane of nation-state is viewed as undermining its magical uniqueness.

The novel characterises this ‘magicality’ as being generated in the now through a memory of the past: “But the change in its status hasn’t diminished its beauty, nor the air of mystery that hangs over what is now known as ‘Old City’.” (3) There is a suggestion that the diminution in the status is occasioned by the integration of the state of Mewar into the Indian nation-state, into becoming one among the many towns of Rajasthan. The likeness to other towns is seen here as a diminution in status. Thus, the coming of the nation-state (the state of Mewar has been dissolved into the Indian nation-state at the time of Indian independence, and the beginning of the novel is twenty-five years from that time) has brought about a reduction in the status of Udaipur.

The change in the status nevertheless is only a limited ‘loss’ because, the novel goes on to assert, its ‘beauty’ is undiminished. The result of this contradiction is the production of magicality: ‘the air of mystery’ that ‘hangs over’ the city. The severance is neither complete, nor is the flattening all-penetrating because this mystery, this nostalgic production of the magicality that sustains the past through remembered practices sets up the ‘old city’ as distinct. Therefore, “the wall still divides Udaipur into two halves. The new township is beyond the old wall and the city within it.” (3) The topographical division also marks a deeper distance as the ‘old city’ and the new township are enveloped in the novel’s narrative prose in distinct zones of time. In two paragraphs of contrasting visions of each other, the novel points to the distance in terms which focus on the continuity with the past for the old city and an absence of collective memory for the new township. (5) In the first of these paragraphs, the view of the township by the people of the old city is presented:

They have seen the rows of neat houses on either side of the broad tarmac road. The air is clean and in it there is no cow dung smoke but there is no soul in the new township. Its people have not memories of what Udaipur was like, they are newcomers, they don’t have common ancestors. They don’t belong to the soil of Mewar. (5)

This view of the township as a body without past, without memory, without soul and without roots is an index of the collective identity invoked in the novel. It is an identity that is specific to Udaipur, issuing from the memory of its glorious past (“No one in the city can forget those days when Udaipur belonged to the people” (5)). Unlike the old city, the new township is a conglomeration of people without collective memory, ancestors, common customs and a sense of belonging. Thus, the old city and the new township occupy different horizons of collectivity, the four hundred years old wall signalling the distance. Though this wall is crumbling, there are big gaps (presumably symptomatic of the ambivalent space where the old city and new township form continuity), it still ‘divides’ Udaipur.

The view of the old city by the people in the new town is less penetrating. While the description of the new township seen by the people of the old city is detailed enough, the description is minimal when the people in the new town see the old city: “They are puzzled by the wall–enclosed havelis… There is no way they can look into the courtyards… The town people leave the old city, without having fathomed what goes on inside men’s and women’s apartments of the haveli.” (5) The differentiated visions of each other, one penetrating while the other puzzled, sets up in the novel a preferred site of narrativization. The old city from now on becomes the closed off horizon of the narrative universe. The narrative dismisses the new township, never to venture into it, though its presence continues to index the ‘crumbling’ wall and the growing gaps in it.


[i] K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian Writing in English. rev. edn., New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1985. p. 753.

[ii] See R.K. Asthana, “Tradition and Modernity in Inside the Haveli”, in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. pp. 193-201.

[iii] Viney Kirpal, “How Traditional can a Modern Indian be: Analysis of Inside the Haveli” in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. p. 176.

[iv] Rama Mehta, Inside the Haveli. (1977), New Delhi: Penguin, 1996.

2 responses »

  1. This novel Inside the Haveli is a loved one where the theme of Women Empowerment is emphasized by its traditional conflict. I enjoyed it while going through this novel which is need of the hour.

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