Shivani (Gaura Pant) Indian Writers that I like

Sunil Deepak (2005, updated April 2008)

Shivani wrote in hindi and her novels and short stories were mostly based in Kumaoun region of North India, the region of mountain folks and deeply traditional societies. Shivani was considered as one of the most popular hindi story writers. Her real name was Gaura Pant and the name Shivani came in 1951, when her short story Main Murga Hun (I am a chicken) was published in the Hindi weekly magazine Dharamyug.

Shivani was one of my favourite authors. Growing up in a family where some well-known hindi writers were persons I knew as family friends, Shivani was the first author I had personally identified and liked during my early childhood. Her novel, Krishnakali, serialized in the weekly magazine Dharmyug, was awaited with anxiety and during the lunch break in the school. I would repeat the new episodes to my friends during lunch breaks. The memory of those days and those strong feelings about the characters of a book are still vivid in my mind, never to be repeated again with that intensity.

She wrote mainly about women and her characters were usually good-looking like her though often they had tragic destinies. Her women were mostly upper-caste, living in traditional kumaoun families, fighting oppression in a gentle and non-threatening way, expressing solidarity with similar oppression among lower caste women. Often her stories had links with Bengali way of life, influenced by her stay at Shantiniketan university in far-eastern part of India, a university established by poet-writer and nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore. She herself agreed that her writings were influenced by the Bengali writer, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

The literary critics were often dismissive towards the writings of Shivani, looking at her primarily as a writer of romantic fiction for women. In my opinion, Shivani presents some similarities to the British writer Rosamunde Pilcher, writer of acclaimed books like The Shell-seekers, September and Coming Home - writing in a gentle and evocative style, setting her most of her stories in Scotland, like Shivani's Kumaoun. In both writers' books, the main focus is on daily lives and relationships. Incidentally, both writers are looked down at because they are "too popular".

Shivani's daughter, Mrinal Pandey is a more militant activist and writer of Hindi. However, Shivani's books are widely available and read. Hardly anyone reading books in Hindi can claim ignorance about her. Many of her books including my personal childhood favourite Krishanakali are part of university curriculums in North India. Some people blame her for writing in difficult to understand shuddh Hindi (pure or sanskritised Hindi), but this same style is loved by many more persons.

Shivani, born in a family of writers and teachers, was trained as a musician and her first story was published in the hindi magazine Natkhat, when she was only twelve. However, her serious writings started only during the nine years spent at Shantiniketan. She herself said, "..those nine years in Shantiniketan are the best days of my life. It was also the golden period for Shantiniketan. Shivani"All those interested in reading and writing had created a Tagore Study Circle, there we all used to go..". Those days in Shantiniketan, in company of Rabindra Nath Tagore and other well known writers and intellectuals have left their mark on her work.

Apart from Krishnakali, her more important novels include the following: Bhairavi, Kalindi, Rati Vilaap, Vishkanya and Shamshan Champa. She herself prefers her travel-book, Charaiveti.

Shivani died in March 2003.

Update April 2008: A few months ago, while in India for work, I found some of the early books of Shivani, including one of her first successes, Chaudah Phere (Fourteen circles of fire), that was serialised in Dharamyug in early nineteen sixties.

The back cover this book published by Radha Krishen prakashan carries the following information about the time when this story was first published:

"At that time there were no TV serials and some popular stories coming out in serial form in Hindi magazines were as attractive and subjects of discussions as any TV serial of today. When Chaudah phere started coming out in a serial form in Dharamyug, its popularity increased with every instalment. In the Kumaon society, many people called Shivani as "chaudah phere". Before the novel could finish, students of Prayag university (Allahabad), fans of the story, wrote hundreds of letters to her, "Please Shivani ji, please don't give a tragic end to the story of Ahilya." In the university campuses people would bet on the future destinies of the principle characters of this story."

The book also has a rare article by eminent Hindi writer Mrinal Pandey, about her mother that gives an insight about the person behind the writer, Shivani. In this article she writes, "When Diddi started writing Chaudah Phere, we were all at home but during its publication we had shifted to Allahabad. Even after lot of trying, I can't see a stable image of her as a writer. Like all children, even we saw our mother as a mother. Beyond being a mother, as a creative person what kind of life does she have, what kind of person she is, we ignored even if we saw it. I only remember that she used to buy ordinary full-scape paper from from the local "Modern Book Depot". Occasional rough drafts were written in our old school notebooks. When she had two-four instalments of manuscript, our servant used to take them to the post-office for sending then by registered post. Bharati ji and Himanshu Joshi, co-editor of "Saptahik Hindustan" later told me that when initial instalments of Shivani's novels used to arrive, there was great enthusiasm in the circulation department staff. The magazines' circulation increased and they would advice the editorial office to stretch the novels as much as possible. In spite of this it was Diddi's simplicity that when I was editor of Vama and Saptahik Hindustan and we published her "Atithi" (Guest) and "Kalindi", she told me very seriously, "Check them, if they are not good throw them away. Otherwise everyone will say that she publishes only her mother's books."

In 2002, Lokvani (New England, USA) published an interview with Shivani when she was visiting her son Muktesh Pant. Here are some excerpts from that interview (the picture on left is from the same interview):

"I live in Lucknow. Around 6.30 every morning, I go for a walk, then sit down to read my paper and have my cup of tea. I make my lunch and then I sit and write. There is no specific time. I don't use the computer. I don't dictate. I make drafts and write, but once I begin I make sure I finish. There is a wonderful library and I spend a lot of time here. Earlier, I was actively involved in a lot of activities. I was in the Audition board of AIR, the Railway Board and all that. I have travelled extensively too. I take it easy now. Now my life revolves round doing things here in Lucknow. I have recently adopted two girls whose education I take care of and they give me company. I am busy and happy. My four children are all well established and it is all because, she says in Hindi, "Saraswati Ka Vardaan". I have 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren and I feel very blessed.

On the American way of life: I like coming here, but only for a visit. I like to go back to Lucknow. America is a land of plenty and people here are affluent and the attitude is "live life to the best". People don't worry so much about the future. Indian values are totally different. It teaches us that you leave everything behind. In India, I think there is still perseverance, hard work and honesty and as long as we don't imitate the wrong things, we will do well for ourselves. I was reading a book on Patanjali's Yoga recently and it talked on how the West is constantly seeking spiritual enlightenment from the east. I am sure that our Samskriti will survive for generations."

On Shivani's death in 2003, Shivani's daughter Ira Pande wrote about her mother in The Hindu, (picture on right from the same article): "We Shivanicalled her Diddi — elder sister — and that is perhaps why she was more a friend, a sibling to us, than a mother. Certainly, she was not the kind of mother that my friends had when we were small. I don't remember her packing my trunk before I went to the hostel, she never came to see us off and receive us when we came home. She just presumed that we were strong like her, and knew how to handle our own lives. Diddi lived alone in Lucknow, occasionally condescending to stay with one of us. Even when her doctors warned her she was very ill, she refused to move in with one of us. She could not, and would not, submit to a lifestyle that did not have her sanction. The word compromise had no place in her vocabulary — she lived on her terms and when she could no longer do so, she preferred to die rather than become an appendage to someone else's life. Asking for help was the one grace that she lacked. So when my sister Mrinal called her Queen Lear, she put her finger on the aura of an almost destructive independence that emanated from Diddi.

I am often asked what it was like to grow up with a writer for a mother. Such people imagine that Diddi locked herself away in a room and wrote furiously all the time. The truth is that none of us ever saw her write — she made time for herself whenever she got the chance to. Bringing up a noisy family of four children and two nephews on a small income was work enough. And yet, her most prolific period was the years when we all lived at home. To her writing was something she loved to do — she never cared whether she won plaudits from critics, she was happy to scribble whenever a story came to her. Anything would do when the urge to write came to her — our old notebooks, dhobi diaries, whatever. She wrote in long hand and never kept any copies of manuscripts. And once she had told a story, she went on to write the next one. Mrinal says that very often, she would sit and insert the punctuation marks in Diddi's hastily scribbled novels and that that was her first lesson in editing.

The written word fascinated her — she read voraciously and in many languages, all the time.

Every time she visited us, one of our most onerous duties was to supply her with a book a day — as long as she had a book in her hand, she was quiet. Her concentration on the book was so total that the house could burn down and she would not notice. Barely a week before her death, she was in hospital, a long needle stuck in her back to aspirate the fluid from her lungs. Her frail body was hunched over a table drawn across her bed. I took her a book and asked whether I should read it out to her. "Why?" she flashed at me in anger. "I'm not blind yet!" Then, propping the book on pillows she shut herself off from pain and finished it in a few hours. Diddi could write, sing, cook, swear, say her prayers — all at the same time. My earliest memories are of waking up to the sound of her loudly chanting in her puja room, breaking off to yell at the servants in the kitchen (or one of us) and going back to chanting again. Few know that she had a beautiful voice and that she gave up singing for the radio when she married because my grandfather disapproved of daughters-in-law who earned money by singing.

So she used her perfect ear to catch every nuance of the human voice, and used a pseudonym "Shivani" in case he objected to her earning by writing as well. She could read and write Bengali, Gujarati, English and Hindi of course was her natural medium of expression. Sanskrit, learnt from her scholar-grandfather as a child, had sharpened her memory so that she could quote reams without pausing to look for references. Some years ago when asked by the AIR to deliver the National Talk, she had to be coaxed into writing down what she was going to say because the AIR wanted the script for their archives. She was quite prepared to speak extempore for an hour, when well in her seventies. I know of no other person who could laugh at herself (and others) with such openness and who had such a perfect crap detector. I like to think this is a gift that Diddi passed on to all of us, even my children. My son writes that he remembers her mean comments about people who were displayed on TV screens in the Lost Persons programme. Where most grandmothers would shed a tear for those poor lost persons, Nani would say "Yeh to khoya hi acchha hai." (This one is better lost). She once commented after seeing a well-known minister on the screen that either his mother or father must have been a rabbit. Needless to say, she was hugely popular with the grandchildren and the servants. She swore freely and encouraged them to be bad. My niece, Radhika, once brought a form for eye donation and asked my mother to sign up.

"Nonsense!" Diddi replied.

"If I die and go sightless to heaven, how on earth will I find your grandfather? Suppose I cosy up to the wrong buddha (old man)!" The servants in her home were never taught to serve tea correctly but were encouraged to be sassy and exit with perfect lines from a room. Ramrati, my mother's maid of many years, was celebrated with an article on her when she died and her daughter Kiran and her children were my mother's constant companions for the last many years. They ate with her, slept in the other bedroom and called her Diddi or Nani, just as we did. Fittingly, it was Kiran's face that was displayed in all her last pictures because she sat cradling my mother's head on her lap before they took her away.

When a pesky photographer was contorting his body to get the most poignant picture of Diddi at her funeral, Kiran told me, "When Amritlal Nagar died, I went with Diddi.

A photographer toppled off and almost fell on Nagarji's body. Diddi asked him loudly, `Kyon bhai, Nagarji ke sath upar jaane ka iraada hai?'" (Do you wish to go up there with Nagarji?). Then, trained perfectly by my mother, Kiran walked up to the photographer and said, "Ab aap jaiyey." (Now leave.)

When it was time for her to go, she went as she had wanted to, with all her children and their families at her bedside, at the Brahma Muhurta, that magical hour before dawn, when a balmy spring breeze was blowing. As we returned from the hospital, the azaan was calling the faithful to the mosque, shabads floated out of the nearby gurudwara and temple bells were ringing. It was exactly the kind of closing chapter that my mother with her strong preference for dramatic endings when writing her books, would have scripted.

Born on Vijaya Dasami, 1928, in Rajkot where her father was the Diwan, Diddi's early years were spent with her parents who moved from state to state as her father worked with the rulers of Orchha and Rampur. When she was about eight, she and her brother and sister were sent by her grandfather, one of the founding faculty members of the Banaras Hindu University, to Shantiniketan, where she spent 12 years. Tagore was a great influence on her life and often visited her family in Almora. My father, Shukdeo Pant, was a teacher and later worked in the Education Department of Uttar Pradesh. We spent a substantial amount of time in Nainital, then moved to Allahabad and finally to Lucknow. Diddi's novels and short stories are set in Kumaon and have strong heroines who are almost always beautiful. When quizzed about this, she claimed she could not bear to write of ugliness in locale or character. In the 1960s and 70s, Dharmayug and Saptahik Hindustan vied to get her serials because this ensured a jump of almost 25,000 in their circulation. Her best-loved works are: Krishnakali, Chaudah Phere, Apradhini (a collection of interviews with women lifers); Yatriki (a travelogue) and her two-part memoir (Smriti Kalash and Sone De). Her literary output is amazing — about 40 published works, and hundreds of articles and columns she undertook to write because she needed the money. Later, when she did not, she donated all the award money she received to charitable organisations or used it to educate the vast retinue of helpers (she used to call it the staff of the Rashtrapati Bhavan) or marry them off. Among her friends were the local hijra, Mohabbat, the milkman, Suleiman, the vegetable vendor, the postman, and Qaif Ali, her faithful rikshawallah. An occasional visitor was a monkey (nicknamed Ramkali) who used to wear her glasses and "read" the newspapers with her in the morning, or so she said. This was the court that she presided over and that supplied her with all the stories that came tumbling out of her."