Inside the Haveli
– Rama Mehta.
I read this book a while back when it was part of my syllabus at college. Inside the Haveli is a story of an urban girl Geeta, who gets married to the son of a former prince. She struggles to fit into a traditional and conservative family of her in-laws in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The novel is set in the1970s.
Geeta is the central character of the story and the journey is mostly seen through her eyes. Another important character at the beginning of the story is Laxmi; a maid in the haveli who has lived there since she was a little girl. It is the only home she has known as she was taken in by the family. The story begins with the birth of a girl for Geeta and her husband. Geeta is restless; she hasn’t adjusted to the way things run in the family. She is a well-educated girl from Mumbai and has always lived in an urban and cosmopolitan environment so she doesn’t understand the old customs and practices of her new family.
Laxmi, on the other hand, has grown up in such an environment and doesn’t know anything other than that. Laxmi has a daughter as well. She has been compelled to make certain decisions which she didn’t wholeheartedly agree with and that weighs on her. Laxmi leaves the haveli, her husband and her daughter to see what lies outside the walls of the haveli. She wants to be free.
The plot of the story is pretty straightforward and thus, easy to follow. I liked the flow of the writing. The descriptions of the city of Udaipur, the setting, the workings of the haveli and the atmosphere are apt. As you read, it transports you to that place and time. Before I started reading this book, I was told that it’s a feminist novel with strong women characters. By the end, I realized this was misleading. Geeta is constantly questioning the regressive practices still prevalent in the family. She doesn’t understand the need for such customs in such progressive times but she never argues against it.
Geeta keeps her head down and does what is expected of her even if she doesn’t agree with it. The only time when she questions anyone is when her mother in law plans to get her daughter married before she is even 18 but even that doesn’t lead to anything. That is the precise problem I had with the book, the plot builds up and builds up, whereas a reader you feel something is about to happen but then nothing happens at all.
As I came close to the end, I started to care less about the story and the characters. Geeta, in the end, conforms to the same traditions and practices wholeheartedly which she had reservations about earlier in the story. How this is a feminist novel I have no idea. It sent a wrong message I think in the end that that one has to conform to the regressive practices of society. Laxmi, who runs away from the haveli, is alluded to; she has suffered because she left. The girl who actually takes a step towards freedom has shown to suffer. Yes, she abandons her daughter which makes her less sympathetic and later she sneaks to her daughter’s school to get glimpses of her. So when you follow the old traditions you are okay but when you leave nothing good comes of it. Geeta being a well-educated person, her choices to start accepting everything as it is was baffling for me.
I was actually interested in the story for a long time. Once I reached the middle, I thought now the plot will advance but all the ideas don’t go anywhere. As a reader, it is very frustrating. It is not a feminist novel, especially not in our times. The end was the most frustrating part of the story and frankly, it pissed me off. Maybe when it was published in the 1970’s it had a different impact then it does now. I liked the setting and the whole atmosphere of the story, the world created in that story has almost disappeared now but overall I liked the book in the beginning but lost interest halfway through.