Once upon a time in distant wet England, there lived a family of five daughters, each of them waiting to meet a single man in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife. The father was not rich, the mother was not sensible. The girls filled the empty hours by embroidering patterns on petticoats, gossiping about eligible gentlemen, dancing at balls and writing the occasional letter. Three of them got husbands.
This is the summary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now celebrating its 200th year, it was first published in January 1813.
Have you ever pondered what happened to these husband-hunting butterflies once they were finally hitched?
And, what if they were the girls of today?
And, what if they were Indian?
We found those girls.
Starting from the eldest—Vaishali, Kavita, Dimple, Radha and Roshni.
The sisters live in Surat, India’s diamond and textile centre, 242km north of Mumbai.
The Gujarati-speaking Kapadia family resides in an aged mansion on Patwa Sheri, a street in the old section of the city. All five daughters of Usha Ben and Gamanalal have experienced the charities and cruelties of marital life. Three of them are divorced. Roshni, the youngest at 26, received her divorce papers a month ago. She has a two-year-old son.
Two centuries ago, one of the Bennet girls might not have had a second chance, but Roshni does. “We are again looking for a match for Roshni,” says the eldest, Vaishali, 34, who found herself back with her parents following the end of her marriage seven years ago.
It is rainy afternoon and all the sisters are seated in a circle. The married ones live in the same city and have come to their maternal home for lunch. The criteria for a suitable boy are discussed. The Kapadias have a different phrase for what Austen referred to as a “good fortune”—in these less genteel times, it is called a “fat bank balance”, as emphasized by the second sister, Kavita, resplendent in trademark sindoor and mangalsutra that proclaims her continuing married status. “If you have no money, you have no value,” she declares.
Rocking her son to sleep, Roshni breaks in, saying, “But I want money with love. My ex-husband, a diamond polisher, made Rs.20,000 a month. Our marriage lasted a year, but in that short time he bought me gold and jewels worth Rs.1 lakh, including two diamond rings.”
Waving at Kavita, Roshni says, “She has got only two gold earrings from jijaji (brother-in-law) in the 15 years of her marriage.”
Imagine the scene Austen might have created from this chit-chat. After all, the range of her six novels was narrow—girls hunting for moneyed husbands. Indeed, generations of literary giants have tried to make sense of their enthusiasm for this teller of drawing-room stories. Just what did they find so brilliant in novels in which such fuss was made around the ordinary feelings of ordinary people? Lord Tennyson called Austen “a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare”. Virginia Woolf hailed “the depth, the beauty, the complexity of her scenes”. E.M. Forster said, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story on a band of World War I soldiers who shared a secret passion for Austen’s novels. It was titled The Janeites.
While there is no consensus among Austen fanatics on her best novel, Pride and Prejudice must be a deserving contender. It has spawned a number of films, TV series and novels. Colin Firth, who played the hero Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation, had his statue erected in London’s Hyde Park in July. It shows him emerging wet out of a lake, an unforgettable scene that was not in the novel. The same month, the Bank of England marked the bicentennial by announcing that Jane Austen’s face will feature on the £10 note. It will include a drawing of Lizzy, or Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine who gets Mr Darcy and his £10,000 a year.
The pound will also carry this line from the novel: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” Such is the feverish excitement around anything linked to Austen that the British press took the pain of pointing out this line was uttered by Caroline Bingley, a woman who has no real interest in reading but is merely trying to impress Mr Darcy.
Neither does anyone read at the Kapadia residence. Not one girl has finished school. The family has been settled in this house in Old Surat for more than 100 years. Built with profits made from the textile business, the later inheritors failed to expand the legacy. The business shrank and “in the year the film Sholay was released”, the gabled-roof building was partitioned among various claimants.
The girls and their parents occupy the ground floor. No pleasantries are exchanged with uncles and aunts on the upper floors. A few years ago, the father retired as a yarn master in a weaving plant and the mother quit as a household cook in the upscale Parle Point Place apartment complex. The mild-mannered couple opened a food stall serving vada-pav. The stall is outside the rear entrance of the house and is principally patronized by medical representatives on the go. The monthly income of Rs.30,000 is certainly not large, but the family has managed to retain such a respectable manner as to engage the general good opinion of their neighbours and acquaintances. Mr Bennet would have understood exactly how this is done.
The neighbours include the moneylender Chetan Goswami, a 42-year-old bachelor who is a daily attendee at the Kapadias. He wants to marry the divorced Vaishali. But she no longer has faith in marriage. “My ex-husband would get drunk and beat me,” she says. “He sold my gold jewellery, my sewing machine and took bank loans under my name.” Vaishali’s marriage ended in 10 years. “Today, I can go out of the house any time of the day or night and meet anyone without giving explanations to anybody.”
Goswami promises “not to control” Vaishali. He is willing to let her continue living with her parents even after they exchange vows. His love for her is an open secret in the neighbourhood. The parents favour the match, as do the sisters. But Vaishali, who spends hours chatting with her admirer, is just not into him. “He’s a very good friend but he can never be my husband.”
A Pride & Prejudice devotee could see a bit of Lizzy in Vaishali. She has the same sunny disposition, confident playfulness and outdoorsy spunk. If Miss Bennet could impatiently jump over the puddles, not caring for weary ankles and dirty stockings, so can Ms Kapadia manoeuvre her Activa scooter through the lawless Surat traffic, mobile phone glued to the ear.
She could also be bitched about, as Miss Bennet was, for showing “an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum”. In a locality where most women are dressed in a sari or salwar suit, Vaishali’s daily wear is jeans and T-shirt. She does help her mother in the kitchen but is not confined within—every afternoon, she is seen barefoot on the street, cracking jokes with the neighbourhood men. “Most of my friends are men,” she says. Her closest confidant is a real-estate broker called Vinay. “I share my innermost feelings and secrets with him.”
Mrs Kapadia claims she has never tried to curb the spirits of her eldest. “She is like me,” says Usha Ben. “I also talk freely to everyone.”
Unlike in Pride & Prejudice, where each sister, excepting Lizzy, was a caricature of some sort of stupidity, the Kapadia girls have rich personalities, and not one is silly.
It is universally acknowledged in the family that the slim Radha is the most short-tempered and the most beautiful. “Her face has a glow,” says Roshni. “She has no pimples. She is also very stylish and takes the longest time to get ready.” There is a photo of Radha taken two years ago en route to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir. She was highly co-ordinated—pink jacket, pink trousers, pink sandals and a pink scarf. She must have outperformed the sunset.
The last of the daughters to be married, Radha is seven months pregnant. Her husband, who “dresses like Salman Khan”, is an auto-rickshaw driver and a part-time DJ. He makes Rs.10,000 a month. “He is struggling,” says Radha, before confessing that her husband prevents her from wearing jeans, which make her look too thin. “He buys me frocks instead.”
Kavita, with two children and a husband with a salary of Rs.5,000 a month, always makes persuasive arguments for the necessity of marriage: “You are nothing without a man.” Supporting her case, the quietest sister Dimple, who has no dimples, chips in, “A woman must die wearing sindoor.”
Dimple, who separated from her husband within a month of marriage, moved in six years ago with a retired school teacher who gives her the enjoyment of a monthly pension of Rs.20,000.
This leaves only two Kapadia girls without men: The youngest Roshni and the eldest Vaishali.
Roshni’s marriage was turning out well until her son’s birth, when her husband clashed with Vaishali over the baby’s hospital expenses. He swore at her; she, like a true tomboy, slapped him; he kicked her in the stomach, telling the wife to enter his house only on the condition of never meeting her sister. Roshni refused. He demanded a divorce. She refused that, too. He took poison. They legally parted last month.
“I miss him,” Roshni says. “But then, I look at Vaishali and feel that I value her more.” Her son wakes up and starts to yell. Picking him up, she says, “Isn’t he cute? I want him to work in TV ads.”
While the child is being passed around among the sisters, Roshni says, “Today, mummy and papa are looking for a boy for me, but I don’t want to marry. Yet, I will get a husband. My son needs a father. He addresses the husbands of Kavita and Radha as ‘papa’. I don’t like it.” Roshni’s phone beeps. She gets up, walks to a corner and whispers into the mobile phone. “It’s her (ex) husband,” says Radha, rolling her eyes. “He still sends her shayari (poetic) messages.”
Before her marriage, Roshni worked as a sales girl in a clothes showroom, earning Rs.7,000 monthly. “I was my own boss,” she says. “I had bob-cut hair. I always got up at 9.30am and if breakfast was not served to me on time, I would leave for work angrily, while my mother would rush after me with a tiffin box. Later, everything changed. My husband made me quit my job. A time came when I had to ask him for money. I hated that. But now I have an offer from a showroom, a package of Rs.12,000. I will join once my son starts school.”
Earlier this year, the Kapadia parents went for the Chardham yatra. It is the summer-season pilgrimage of four high-altitude temples in the Himalayas. Vaishali tagged along. The three visited Kedarnath, in Uttarakhand, two weeks before it was destroyed by the June downpour in which thousands lost their lives. On the way back to Surat, they stopped over in Delhi for two days. Vaishali bought a wallet and a cap for Goswami, her patient suitor.
“It is up to Vaishali to remarry,” says the mother, “I’m not going to force any decision on her.”
The daughter says, “Life is happier without a husband.” Glancing at her frail father, who is drinking tea from a saucer, she says, “One of us girls has to stay behind to look after papa. I have taken him so many times to the hospital during midnight emergencies.”
Mr Kapadia finishes his tea, quietly sitting behind a cauldron filled with boiled potatoes. The vadas have to be prepared for the evening snack rush.
“In today’s world,” Vaishali says, “it is not important to marry.”
Shaking her head, Kavita says, “Didi, only after you grow old and we sisters are busy with our families will you feel the absence of a companion.”
Pursing her lips, Mrs Kapadia turns towards the wall and smiles, as if to an invisible audience, asking them to applaud the democratic disagreements of her daughters being enacted on the stage.
Taking Vaishali’s hand in hers, Dimple says, “You must accept Goswami.”
Vaishali starts to giggle. So do the rest of the sisters.
A few minutes later, Vaishali is starting up her scooter. The delivery of the cooking gas cylinder has been delayed by a week. She is heading to the agency’s office to make enquiries. Goswami is riding pillion, wearing the cap gifted by his lady love.
Jane Austen died an unmarried virgin at 41. Had she lived longer, she might have written a seventh novel, which would still have been a comedy of manners but perhaps more sombre and reflective. It might have dwelt on life after marriage and the accompanying horrors and disappointments—and hopes for a second chance in matrimony.
The heroines of that novel might have resembled these sisters from Surat; and the new Lizzy could have been our Vaishali, minus the slap and the scooter.