03 October 2009

Keeping Corner; Kashmira Sheth

Keeping Corner Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't realize that this was written by the same author as Blue Jasmine, but I should have because the metatheme is the same: old traditions are not always best, and change is modern and good.

Here, Leela is a young wife - so young, in fact, that she hasn't yet left her parent's home (nor has she really spent any time with her husband). She's in school, waiting for her anu (the ceremony where she'll leave home and join her in-law's household), and just starting to notice and have feelings for her husband when he is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. In pre-independence India, among the Brahman, this means that Leela's hair will be shaved, that she must "keep corner" (basically, stay inside her house and in one corner of the inner courtyard) for a year, that she gives up all her fancy clothes and jewelry, and stays a widow forever. Her family is also expected to share her year by not entertaining, not attending the religious ceremonies and generally shunning society.

Leela does have a brother, Kanubhai, who is 22 and unmarried (quite unusual for that time and caste), and who lives in Ahmedabad. This is important because Ahmedabad is also a base for Gandhi's movement - there are many new ideas (like protesting taxes, women are equal, castes are equal) that Kanubhai is surrounded by and inspired by. He manages to have Leela taught by the town's teacher during her year, and (unknown to Leela) vows not to marry until she is allowed to study and have a life despite now being a widow.

The news of how India is changing, slowly breaking free from the rule of the Raj parallels how Leela and her family changes. At times this can be a little heavy-handed, but I think readers will root for Leela's future because it does seem so very unfair. Besides the obvious outcome (it really would have been surprising had the author allowed Leela to stay at home, a widow with no future) I got annoyed when she translated the foreign words into English for us - there's a glossary in the back so if felt redundant.

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