By Samridhi Dixit
There is no reader of Hindi literature all around the world who have not read or heard about the works of Shivani. For a number of readers across the country especially in the pre-TV and internet era, Gaura Pant, popularly known by her pen name ‘Shivani’, hers is a name which has been held in great respect for the past several decades as a master storyteller whose novels have been read by several generations.
Gaura Pant ‘Shivani’ was born on 17 October 1924, the Vijaya Dasami day in Rajkot, Gujarat, where her father, Ashwini Kumar Pande was a teacher with the princely state of Rajkot. He was a Kumaoni Brahmin. She had her ancestral home in Almora, which was why most of her works featured the life of hills. Life in Kumaon was simple when Shivani was a young girl and it was about her life that we constantly read in her works
A lifetime of writing stories woven around the simple, day-to-day lives of people in the hills was what made the unassuming Gaura Pant the famous writer called Shivani. Thousands of readers across the world know about the Kumaon Himalayas only through the vivid and intimate descriptions found in the works of this renowned Hindi writer. Regarded as one of the most famous Hindi writers of her generation and the first woman writer from Kumaon to win worldwide acclaim, she emerged as an inspiration for many by becoming one of the first girls from the Kumaon hills to break old taboos and pursue their dreams. Gaura Pant who took on the pen name Shivani in 1951 when her short story Main Murga Hun (I am a chicken) was published in the Hindi weekly magazine Dharamyug. She has written extensively about Kumaon which is the backdrop of her works and which was her home for many years. Embedded in the folk culture of Kumaon she conveyed the yearning if common man and woman in and their inter-relationship in her writings.
Shivani wrote in Hindi and her novels and short stories were mostly based in Kumaon region of North India, the region of mountain folks and deeply traditional societies. Shivani’s love for Kumaon comes through brilliantly in her reminiscences recounted in “Mountain Echoes” brought out by Namita Gokhale. Shivani was the first author I had personally identified and liked during my early childhood, as growing up in a family of bibliophiles, Shivani was the most read author. Her novel, Krishnakali, was narrated to me as bedtime stories by my mother. The memory of those days and those strong feelings about the characters of a book are still vivid in my mind. Shivani 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 human 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 a far-eastern part of India, a university established by poet-writer and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore.
Veena Joshi, Shivani’s eldest daughter, told in an interview with The Times Of India, “As a child, I remember people reading her stories and coming to our home asking for Jambu (a herb grown in the higher regions of Kumaon and Nepal) ke aalu (potatoes) and other Kumaoni foods that she mentioned in her works.”
She was a pioneer in giving voice to Indian women through her writings. She produced several major works which were serialized in famous literary magazines. Her most well-known works include Chaudah Phere, Krishnakali, Atithi, Lal Haveli and Vishkanya. 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 here started coming out in a serial form in Dharamyug, its popularity increased with every installment. 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.” On the university campuses, people would bet on the future destinies of the principal characters of this story.
Shivani’s fiction proclaims a quiet, warm humanism. Characters who might seem pale and uninteresting in real life – an undistinguished, very orthodox Brahmin priest in a village up in the foothills of the Himalayas, his traditional wife, the village idiot, the widowed mother – take on a human glow and their lives an unexpected resonance. It is the small events, little gestures, nondescript people, that suffuse the world of Shivani’s fiction with hope, and the future is something one enters with courage. Shivani’s feminism is like a gentle humanism that does not stop short when it meets the female. Within the world-view of her fiction, there are few contradictions or problems that cannot be transcended with a little sympathy and a belief in the goodness of humankind.” Her creations are literary masterpieces. The stories and novels contain usage of very good Hindi language and Shlokas in Sanskrit that can satisfy the literary urge of any book lover. The vivid imagery of the hills of Kumaon in her novels is real treat for the readers. Many, if not most, of her stories, were romances wherein the main protagonist was a beautiful and strong Kumaoni Brahmin woman who was also proficient in speaking the Bangla language, perhaps Shivani’s own imaginary alter ego.
Shivani must be hailed for introducing the Hindi speaking world to Kumaoni customs and way of life.There is a huge dearth of youngsters taking up Hindi literature writing today. It’s ironic considering that writers like Shivani had produced such a vast wealth of work which was inspired by the region that she grew up in and worked.
Towards the end of her life, Shivani took to autobiographical writings, first sighted in her book, Shivani ki Sresth Kahaniyan, followed by her two-part memoir, Smriti Kalash, and Sone De, whose title she borrowed from the epitaph of an 18th-century Urdu poet – Nazeer Akbarabadi:
Thak Gaya Hoon Neend Aa Rahi Hai Sone DeBahut Diya Hai Tera Saath Zindagi Maine
(I am tired, sleep overtakes me, let me rest I have been long enough with you on the journey of life) Shivani continued to write till her last days and died on 21 March 2003 in New Delhi.
In 2005, her daughter, Hindi writer Ira Pande, published a memoir based on Shivani’s life, titled Diddi My Mother’s Voice. Diddi in Kumaoni means elder sister, and that’s how her children used to address her, as she really was a friend to them.
Still, in the ultimate analysis, Shivani’s fiction celebrates life and youth and beauty… Her work reveals how we all exist in a complex matrix where democratic and unpredictable series of changes must impact not only the rich but also the poor, the troubled and angst-ridden young, and also all aging and often bewildered parents. And she does not judge, nor pose pithy homilies so beloved of Hindi writers. This, according to her, was life, take it or leave it, leaping over narcissistic reflexes and pop psychology that seem to mark so much of the popular writing today.
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