Title: Smritichitre —The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife
Author: Lakshmibai Tilak
Translated by: Shanta Gokhale
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: 650; Pages 520
Great instances of fortitude or generosity find easy entry into history books. So do the heroes of such actions. But the heroics of common men and women, who through their daily struggles make great sacrifices don’t have their feat chronicled anywhere. It is these people who support greatness through their doing of ordinary things in a great way.
Lakshmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre – The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife is such a story of an ordinary woman, who on the strength of her homespun values and ingenuity, rises above her restrictive familial traditions and evolves a progressive culture and artistic taste that not only refine and enrich the family’s thoughts and values, but also set the right tone for her later generations to engage in.
Set in the late 19th century and early 20th century Maharashtra, the story mostly revolves around small towns/villages of the region, which are not much known to those who are not original inhabitants of the Maratha hinterland. In line with the smallness of the places the story navigates are the traditions and religious narrowness that define the life and literature of the time. It is in breaking away from this encumbrance of unquestioned beliefs that the greatness of Lakshmibai lies. It needs immense wisdom and courage to transcend the boundaries of a cultural system one is born and bred in. It needs immense perseverance and willpower to first recognise and then abandon old habits that debilitate intellectual growth and embrace modernity by transforming one’s thoughts, that too in an ecosystem that is not overly conducive to promoting or sustaining such radical ascendency. Most people are stuck in their time warp and are happy partakers of both good and evil society has in store for them. Few people question their way of life and fewer still pen them down in a readable book form. But such stories of courage inspire and propel us to positivity and hope, which is why writings of this type need to be celebrated.
Lakshmibai waded through a murky domain of socio-religious fixations that defined the life of those times and broke new grounds through unfathomable sufferings. Her conversion to Christianity following a five-year-long separation from her husband on this issue is perhaps the most radical of her life’s turning points. Mention must be made of her husband poet Narayan Waman Tilak, without whose support and spurring, it would have been difficult for the young wife to come out of her shell. He was himself a rebel and iconoclast who almost raised a scandal by converting to Christianity.
Lakshmibai, too, was a rebellious and bold girl and these character traits stood by her in later life. This also put her at odds with Narayan Tilak, many years older to her, and conflicts between the two were frequent and disturbing. But the candidness with which Lakshmibai has enumerated the details of her complex relationship with her husband and the deep love and respect they shared with each other despite the feuds is engrossing as well as moving, on its way teaching us a way or two to make a married life successful despite areas of discord.
Despite being a commonplace wife, Lakshmibai ended up being a celebrated writer herself as well as a humanitarian and an orator par excellence. The greatness of the narrative also lies in the fact there are no exaggerations and bragging to play up her own greatness. In autobiographical renditions, a tacit adulation of the self often finds way. Lakshmibai has not allowed this pitfall to creep in and mar her honest appraisal.
Yes, there are shortcomings in the book, because it was written not by a professional writer but a noble wife in passionate fervor as a tribute to her revered husband. The detailing is too minute that could have been avoided and the book could be précised.
A 500-page work is a little too long to hold. The nitty-gritty household happenings of the daily chore and the plethora of relations from uncles and aunts to their sons and daughters brought into the story make for a complex mix not easy to disentangle. We are prone to lose the thread of the narrative. Terseness and pithiness would have been assets for this touching memoir. Yes, for one, the humour and wit that sparkle in the lines really enhance the stature of Lakshmibai and show her simple-heartedness and intelligence. We must also thank writer and scholar Shanta Gokhale for her brilliant translation that has made the memoir possible to reach a wider audience. Lakshmibai Tilak remains ever etched in our memories as the hero that we always try to see in our mothers!