Book Review: Rudaali
Author: Mahaswetha Devi
Publisher: Seagull Books
The novella "Rudaali" is a heart-wrenching tale written by the Bengali author and Magsaysay Award recipient Mahaswetha Devi. The title of the book refers to a class of women called "Rudaalis" (professional mourners) who are called to cry at funerals of upper caste men. The practice is most common in the state of Rajasthan. The story tracks the life of Sanichari, who is named so because she was born on Sanichar (Saturday).
Soon after her birth, her father passed away and her mother also ran away leaving Sanichari with her in-laws. Sanichari is married off to Ganju who lives with his ailing mother. Ganju dies at a village fair thus making her a widow. She now lives for the sake of her son Budhua, who worked in the nautanki and got married to a street prostitute Mungri. In the entire course of Sanichari's life so far, she has never cried or rather, did not have the time to cry. She meets her childhood playmate Bhikni, who has recently come over to Rajasthan from Bhagalpur considering the failing health of Thakur Ramavatar Singh.
In the narrative style, Rudaali comes across as an example of "anti-fiction" because it does not adhere to many of the norms demanded for fiction writing. Most of the novella is written like a piece of journalism in an absolutely desentimentalized manner. The tale shatters the myth of an Indian village as an unchanging, romantic, eternal lifestyle by exposing the cruel power structure and corrupt ways of socially and economically dominant classes. The novella offers a powerful critique of an exploitative and repressive society as well as giving us a glimpse of deeply flawed socio-economic and religious systems.
It is an acidly ironic tale of exploitation and struggle, and above all, of survival. In totality, Rudaali is a powerful indictment of the socio-economic system in India. It also launches a scathing attack on the vestiges of feudalism in rural India. It is deeply ironical that in India, women are regarded as a manifestation of Goddesses and yet she is exploited and marginalized by the upper classes. Rudaali records the transformation of Sanichari from a mere widow to a woman who is better equipped to adapt and manipulate the system. The story has been adapted into a play and a movie using the same name. In each version, Rudaali can be read and analyzed from the feminist angle or from the Marxist principles.
"Her wail screeched through the dead bare deserts
Breaking the silence of decades. She cried,
Finally, she let out the wail long hidden."