Lakshmibai Tilak, My old friend

Translator’s Introduction

Shanta Gokhale

Lakshmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre is one of those books that constantly beckons you to re-read it. If not to re-read it in its entirety, at least to dip into it occasionally to meet an old friend. When such a book beckons a translator, she does not stop at re-reading, or re-re-reading. She is keen to make it her own in the only way she knows. By translating it.

The idea of translating Smritichitre had been lodged in my brain from the second time I re-read it thirty-five years ago. One good reason that went beyond the personal, which I shall soon come to, was that it was one of the finest examples of literary storytelling that existed in my language, Marathi. My sense that this was enough reason to translate it was confirmed by Susan Sontag, who, in the St Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation has argued with perspicacity, panache and passion, that the purpose of translation was to enlarge the readership of a book that was not just worth reading but worth re-reading. In the pyramidal structure of literary merit, she said, very few books occupied the top. The translator’s “evangelical incentive” was to translate these. Lakshmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre sits right at the top of the pyramid. Of this there is no doubt.

With translation, there are personal and practical factors also to be considered. It is, after all, not a mechanical process of fitting word to word. One needs to get into the skin of the writer, view the world through her eyes, find words and phrases that hypothetically she would have used had she been writing in English. The question I had to ask myself was whether I had the capacity to get into Lakshmibai’s skin and translate not so much her words as her world. It was all very well to be seduced by the easy flow of her crisp and colourful sentences and her vocabulary that smelt of kitchens and cowsheds rather than books and libraries. But was I equipped to find the right register to carry those lines, those phrases into English? I decided to translate the first chapter to find out. But once I had started, I could not stop.

Besides the fact that Smritichitre was a literary classic and therefore had to be translated, besides the fact that I was totally enamoured of Lakshmibai’s storytelling persona, there was something else too that was driving me. I had to bring before the world this woman’s extraordinary life. She had lived through events that would have destroyed a lesser person. They very nearly destroyed her too. She made two attempts at killing herself and failed. Looking back at them, she writes, “Many occasions had arisen in my life when I was near to committing suicide. But I never did. I do not think I was capable of taking such a step. That is how I am. Even in the darkest hour of despair, I grope and struggle to find a way out and live. I do not stumble and fall on the way and give up on life. In short, I am like a rubber ball.”

The dark hours of despair that Lakshmibai lived through did not have the power to dent her spirit. Her father-in-law tortured her mentally; her husband, a poet and seeker, would up and leave whenever the desire came upon him, without ever leaving an address where he could be found. His conversion to Christianity separated Lakshmibai from him for five years, during which time her maternal family watched her like hawks, afraid she would run off to join him. She did join him in the end but in stages, first sharing a roof but not the kitchen with him and then, won over to Christianity herself, living with him as a wife.

This story could so easily have been written in tears. But Lakshmibai’s sense of humour was too irrepressible to allow that. She describes every notable event of her life from age seven to fifty-six and every oddball character that became part of it for a while and moved on, with her unfailing comic touch. It is true that in turning everything to laughter she does not give us a rounded view of her complex relationship with her husband, or of his character or hers. However, reading between the lines, we see that living with Lakshmibai must have been quite as dificult for Reverend Narayan Waman Tilak as it was for her to live with him. She was by no means the meek, docile doormat that women were expected to be in those days. She fought tooth and nail with her husband when she disagreed with his ideas or actions, and often won her argument. But she was ready to laugh at her vanity when she lost. He, on the other hand, was a bad loser. He used physical violence to settle arguments, and when his rage subsided, became instantly contrite and remorseful.

Feminists have had a problem with Lakshmibai’s endurance of her husband’s ill-treatment of her. Viewed in the framework of women’s rights as we see them today, she should have filed for divorce on innumerable counts. But it is not just that such an act was unheard of in those times, the thought of permanent separation from her husband did not once enter her mind. Because, quite simply, Narayan Waman Tilak and Lakshmibai Tilak loved and respected each other. Although she does not say so in the forthright way we would, her poems and his express the single-minded commitment they felt towards one another. Even more movingly, their love expresses itself in Lakshmibai’s account of the few meetings they had during their separation. They were brief meetings during which she was strictly chaperoned and no more than a few words were exchanged. But those words, for the very reason that they were so few and almost formal in character, carry for us an extraordinary charge of love. The meetings and the letters he wrote to her make it clear that he pined for her as much as she did for him. John Donne speaks of such a love:

If they be two, they are two so As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show To move, but doth, if the other do.

If Lakshmibai tells us stories about her husband that make us laugh, she tells as many about herself that are equally funny. She admits candidly to her strange idiosyncrasies and her overweening confidence in non-existent skills. She also touchingly confesses that she became a poet, a keertankar, a public speaker and a social worker entirely because her husband pushed her to study and to grow. He had an eccentric disregard for the material things in life and wished she too would extricate herself from household concerns and involve herself in public life.

Lakshmibai Tilak started writing Smritichitre in 1924. She wrote consistently for seven years. Beyond that, life was the present which she was living fully and creatively. She was done with reminiscing. Smritichitre was first published as “Memories” in a weekly called Sanjeevani. There were no plans then to bring it out as a book. But later, some important literary figures suggested it should be. That is when the name was changed to Smritichitre. The first three parts were published in 1934. The fourth was published posthumously in 1936. Since it was incomplete, Lakshmibai’s son Devdutt Narayan Tilak edited the four parts several years later, adding a chapter at the end about Lakshmibai’s last years. It took thirty years for the second edition to be published. But after that, there has been a new edition every few years, including one edited and annotated by Lakshmibai’s grandson Ashok Devdutt Tilak who indicates in his introduction that his father had dropped some parts from the original in his version, probably to make the book tauter and racier. He himself has edited the unabridged edition.

This is not the first translation of Smritichitre, nor perhaps will it or should it be the last. It was translated by E. Josephine Inkster as I Follow After and published by Oxford University Press in 1958. A few chapters, particularly from Part 1 were dropped in this translation and Part 4 was totally omitted. The second translation, Sketches from Memory, by Louis Menezes was published by Katha in 2007. His source was the third edition of Smritichitre, abridged and edited by Devdutt Narayan Tilak, which included the chapter on Lakshmibai’s last years.

I have myself omitted three chapters out of a total of ninety-two. These three chapters are devoted entirely to Narayan Waman Tilak’s poems. Chapter 24 is “Poems on Dattu”, Chapter 25 contains poems about the loving relationship between Rev. Tilak’s brother Sakharam and his wife Rakhmai. Chapter 31, entitled “To Abandon Your Religion Is Not to Abandon Your Love for Your Country”, comprises one long poem that argues the proposition in the heading. While omitting the chapters, I have placed Lakshmibai’s account of the poems at the end of the previous chapters.

Poems abound elsewhere too. Rev. Tilak was a poet of renown in his time. Poetry was a vital part of life for both him and Lakshmibai. But, as poems, they did not warrant in my judgement the space they occupy in the original. Written in the “poetic” mode of the times, neither the language nor the sentiments expressed lend themselves happily to modern English, which does exceptionally well in Lakshmibai’s narration.Translating the poems into a faux archaic style would do a disservice to the genuineness of the love, anguish and devotion that the poems express.
For all these reasons, I have taken recourse to paraphrasing relevant parts of those poems which take Lakshmibai’s narration forward while omitting the rest.

From Smritichitre: Memoirs of a Spirited Wife
Lakshmibai Tilak

Having decided that Lakshmibai Tilak should become literate like Lakshmibai Khare, Mr Tilak began to teach me. He was a very good teacher with children, but he turned out to be quite the opposite with me. To start with, I was not a child. Then I was not a stranger. And finally, I could not control my laughter. This habit worked against my education.

Once he had taken it into his head to teach me, he spent all the money he had on books prescribed for the first to the sixth grade. Our lessons began with this pile of books in the middle and we on either side. The first lesson was grammar. Mr Tilak said, ‘What is a word?’ I burst out laughing. What kind of a question was that? I said, “A word is a word.” Mr Tilak said, “But what is a word?” I answered, “A word is a word.” He said, “But what is a word?” Back came my answer, “A word is a word.” Mr Tilak became very angry. The angrier he got, the funnier I found it. Finally, the flames of his rage fanned by the gale of my laughter caused him to set the books on fire. Mr Tilak tore them all to shreds and set them alight. This was our first lesson.

Mr Tilak wanted me to become as learned as him in eight days. But I was denser than dense, so how was that possible?

Gradually, he understood his mistake. So he began to teach me the alphabet, group by group, making me trace the letters over and over again. But after a few days, he got bored with this kind of teaching. Thus my lessons ended. But they had allowed me to recognise letters and that gave a fillip to my reading. Gradually I became familiar with even complex letters like diphthongs. But, as I have confessed earlier, I trip over some letters even now.


Lying in bed I was watering my pillow. Nobody came anywhere near me till three in the morning. Mr Tilak was feeling very guilty now. In my mind I was howling before God. “Dear Lord, what have I done today? What must my ancestors in heaven be saying about me? What penance will I have to do to absolve myself of this sin?” A thousand such thoughts coursed through my mind.

My eyes were closed. Then suddenly a light shone on them. This is not a metaphor. I really experienced the sensation of being engulfed by a bright light like the light of the sun. The turmoil in my mind vanished and other thoughts such as I had never experienced before began to whirl around in my mind. Dattu could not understand why there was this dense silence in the house. He escaped it by going out to play and forgetting us. Mr Tilak had supreme faith in God. His prayer was answered. The chains of caste consciousness that had bound my heart snapped and fell to the ground. This happened in a trice. The thoughts in my mind at the time were so clear that I am putting them down here exactly as they came to me.

Did God create castes or was it Man? Had God created them, would He not have made them look different from one another? Instead, life and death, bones and flesh, the heart and the mind, the ability to tell right from wrong, joys and sorrows, were they not common to all men? And if God had created castes among humans, why not among animals? Why are there no Brahmin bulls and Shudra bulls, Vaishya crows and untouchable crows? No Nandi horn adorns the Shudra crow’s head nor Shiva’s linga the Brahmin crow’s head. If any difference exists among humans and animals, it is between male and female.

That was it. My mind was free of caste. I was not going to think of any human being as low. Everybody was going to be equal to me. I would eat and drink from everybody’s hands without discrimination. While this train of thought was running in my mind, Ashammabai came to console me. “Please get up now, draw your water and start cooking,” she said. I said, “I am not going to draw water. I am not going to cook. I’d like you to cook. I will eat what you cook.” She did not immediately understand what I was trying to say. She told Mr Tilak about it. He too came and told me to fetch water and cook. I told him categorically that I was not going to cook.He said, “You torment yourself for no reason. I will not say a single word to you about water and cooking. Just do what makes you happy.”

I said, “I am speaking from my heart, not out of anger.” When he was finally convinced of my sincerity, he exclaimed, “Thank God,” and instantly knelt down to pray. Ashammabai cooked and we ate together in great happiness. It was the first time I had eaten food cooked by a non-Brahmin. But it did not upset me as drinking that sip of water the previous night had.

Ashammabai left after a few days to return to her work in Wai. I felt very sad to see her go. I had never had to work under a mother-in-law’s instructions. My mother-in-law had died before my marriage. I have already written about how my adopted mother-in-law in Rajnandgaon had tortured me. But although Ashammabai was also an adopted mother-in-law, she was more like a mother.

Mr Tilak now settled down to his new married life. Eating and drinking were no longer problems. Although I had not converted to Christianity nor did I plan to, I had lost all trace of caste consciousness. Because of that, the two kitchens that we had run till then became one. Mr Tilak put no obstacles in the way of my idol worship and when it was his prayer time I made a point of sitting with him quietly.