“There is a perception, particularly in India, that the streets in the U.S. are paved with gold,” maintains Kamlesh Chauhan, in a recent conversation with me, “but when reality bites, the truth is rather disturbing.”
Kamlesh was talking about her novel in Hindi, “Saat Samundar Paar”, which was recently published by Unistar Publications of Chandigarh, India. The publication caused a stir in Indian literary circles for its innovative and bold approach in storytelling.
The novel grips the reader from the very first sentence which finds Sundari, the protagonist, seated in front of a mirror, studying the crags of an ageing face, searching for meaning in a life spanning decades across three continents. And through her reminiscence is told the story of different characters of different generations – in India, Britain, Canada and the U.S.
Kamlesh maintains that this is not an autobiographical novel, but is inspired by numerous encounters she had with people whose anecdotal stories and vignettes have been weaved into a saga that traverses ages and miles. Kamlesh started keeping a journal after she arrived in California as a teenage bride in the early nineteen seventies. She studied characters, she invented characters, she breathed life into these characters and then populated the stage of her tale with these characters.
In her first novel, Kamlesh Chauhan aspires to attain the heights of great story telling in the mold of Munshi Premchand , but falls short in the richness of fabric and language. However, she makes up for this deficiency, in the expression of popular thought and certainly can be placed at par with socially significant and entertaining novelists like Gulshan Nanda and Dharamveer Bharati.
Asked about what inspired her to write, Kamlesh said, “I was passing through Heathrow Airport in London when I saw a Punjabi lady, wearing a pink traditional dress, performing janitorial duties. I was taken aback by this seemingly incongruous event and approached the lady and discovered that, in fact, she had a master’s degree from India but finding no recognition for her education in Britain she had to accept any job that was offered her.” Kamlesh appreciated the dignity of labor displayed by the lady but she began thinking; what were the expectations of this individual before she left India; what was promised to her before she left India; what hardships did she have to face?
“Saat Samundar Paar” explores these rhetorical situations.
Sundari, born in a middle class family, is witness to the financial difficulties her family encounters to marry off her sisters. The social structure is such that parents are totally burdened by responsibility and debt. She rebels against society’s norms and chooses education over marriage as she does not want to add to the burdens of her family. Independent in thought, bold in demeanor, enlightened in intellect and blessed with beauty, Sundari nourishes dreams of a life with her prince charming, Aakash, whom she meets surreptitiously. Sundari’s parents, however, do not approve of this and marry her off to an NRI from the U.S., Inder, who has falsely projected himself as a business tycoon. Thus begins her journey across the seven seas.
Though Sundari is an educated woman, she is made to feel inadequate in her new environment – not only by a possessive husband but by a society that shuns a new immigrant. Her husband uses the suppression of her desires as a tool to demonstrate his own perceived superiority. He deprives her of material and emotional needs because he wants her to be subservient to his commands. But Sundari is not a slave. She rebels and becomes a woman of substance, in her own right.
Against this background Kamlesh tackles important social issues. First and foremost is the perception in India that any foreign country is better than India. Middle class families are lured into sending their daughters overseas dreaming that a golden life awaits the chosen few. In many instances, the husbands are not what they have projected.
“It is fashionable,” Kamlesh stated, “ to demonize men in film and the print media. Just as it is fashion to paint India as a poor and ignorant country. I have tried to stay away from this stereo-type.”
“Meaning?” I am cynical. I am familiar with the male hating works of film makers like Deepa Mehta.
“Women have taken advantage of their situation as well. For instance, the novel relates the story of a woman who marries an NRI only so that she could sponsor the rest of her family to join her in the States. And then, there is the story of Sheela, in England, married to Anup. In this instance, Anup is the victim of Sheela’s domineering attitude and her manipulation of the system whereby her husband loses his reputation, his dignity, his business and his children. In short, he is totally ruined.”
It has to be granted that Kamlesh has been objective in her novel. There are issues which have been commented on, emotionally yet clinically. Domestic violence is of great significance.
“There are countless instances of physical and emotional abuse. Truth is that mostly it is women who are brought to the Western countries after marriage and subjected to violence. They are exploited because of their economic dependence on their husbands, and because they are not aware of services and facilities affordable to them. Through the medium of the novel, I am attempting to increase awareness and thus enrich and empower women.”
Kamlesh has been bold in exploring the desire for affection that women harbor. Neglected in marriage, cast aside as inferior, but very human in their needs they latch onto any emotional succor that comes their way. They are not immune to the permissive nature of society, and Kamlesh tackles subjects of pre-marital and extra-marital sex in a sympathetic manner.
“There is a basic difference between India and the west. Children born here mature at a faster rate. They are exposed to a lot in the media and take certain social mores to be the norm. When, and if, these children of the west are placed in an Indian context, there is bound to be misunderstanding and confusion. Eventually there are adjustment problems, and many times it is very easy to slip down the slippery slopes of ethical behavior.”
“Surely, you are not suggesting that everyone in the west is amoral, if not immoral?” I protest.
“On the contrary,” Kamlesh elucidates, “children in the west are naïve. They have not learnt the Chanakya like machinations of Indians. There is a lot of demonstrative drama in India -- empty show without substance, and a lot of NRIs fall for this false veneer.”
The novel is not a racy account, jumping from one bedroom to another. It is not an exploitation of situations, designed to titillate. It is a very serious effort at exploring a woman’s desires and emotions. Sundari is deprived of true love. She is devastated by a loveless marriage. She finds happiness in the arms of another and all this while she rises above the murky waters that would pull her down into a morass of insignificance. She becomes a woman of substance and leaves her mark on society.
In addition to penning the novel, Kamlesh writes poetry and is appreciated for her unconventional substance and style. Her audience awaits her next novel, “ Saat Pheron se Dhokha.”