‘Centuries of slavery have been crushed—and a variety of elaborate dishes are on display.’ This sentence captures beautifully the inanity of bourgeois fandangos, the mesh of incompatible value systems, and the obsession with appearances that run through all of Homvati Devi’s ‘Tea Party’, translated from Hindi by Tanvi Srivastava. India has recently gained freedom, and even though a good section of the population is hungry and malnourished, officials like Mr. Ajit Singh Chauhan have lavish tea parties to attend. He thinks he is expected to bring his wife, Karandai, to them. Problem is, Karandai does not belong to this world. She has more experience making dung cakes than she has of sipping tea. So then, should Karandai just stay at home and fret about their seven children? Or is Mr. Chauhan right in demanding an effort towards etiquette from his wife? ‘Tea Party’, like all good stories, lets you sip on the questions before you attempt answering.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Homvati Devi was born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh (then United Provinces), in 1902. She is among the first women writers in Hindi and was published alongside Premchand, Agyeya, and Mahadevi Verma. Swapna-Bhang (1948) is a collection of short stories set in provincial Indian towns in the late 1940s. The stories are written during a pivotal moment in Indian history—the power transfer from the British to the citizens of India. Homvati Devi’s feminist narratorial voice appealed to me immediately as a translator, and more so when I realised that she, too, had become an invisible voice in the Hindi literary canon.
My translation process is comparable to the way I write fiction—take a deep breath and churn out a first draft as soon as possible. I try not to read the text too closely before translating it, hoping my curiosity as a reader will seep into the target language. Then, armed with a dictionary, I edit the story, restructuring the flow of sentences to make it a smoother read. Simultaneously—and this is the part I love—I study the historical and geographical context of the story. This may not affect the final translation, but allows me to visualise the story better.
— Tanvi Srivastava
For the fourth time, Mr Chauhan grabs his wife, spins her around like a puppet, and says: ‘No, the saree still hasn’t been tied correctly. Look, make the folds a little longer from the front and I’ll adjust it from the back. And fix the length of the pleats; some are too high, and some are too low. How do you still not know how to wear a saree? You’ve been through this countless times before. Arre! Look at me—who do you think taught me everything? It’s possible to observe and learn. But you’re always at the cinema or at gatherings…filling your head with garbage. And how can you be too shy to attend a party? It’s against etiquette for me to keep attending these events alone, especially when others are present with their wives.’
He examines Karandai carefully while he speaks. Bewildered, she stares back at him with gaping eyes.
He continues: ‘Listen, it isn’t fashionable to pull your hair back in such a manner. If your hair is short, then use… what do you call it…? That black extension?’
‘Chuteela,’ his wife replies.
‘Yes, that’s what I meant. You can use it to plait your hair. And look, the sindoor in your parting is too prominent and your kajal is smudged. Can’t you survive a moment without eating tobacco? How your teeth have decayed! I bought you a toothbrush, but you say you’re disgusted by it, that it pokes you. Everything you say is so peculiar. Spread it further and pat it lightly, so that no one knows it’s been applied. No need to paint your nails; you can if you want to… but hurry. The party begins at 5 p.m. sharp. We shouldn’t be the last to arrive; it’s against etiquette. If you can’t walk in those sandals, then you might as well wear those chocolate-coloured slippers. And look, I’ve already explained the etiquette around tea drinking to you several times. There shouldn’t be the slightest sound when sipping. And we won’t take the children with us. I’ll tell Binno to play with them here on the roof, or the lawn. All the brothers and sisters… Okay, I’ll get ready too—you’ve understood everything, na?’
Mr Chauhan descends the stairs, satisfied that he has explained everything to his wife adequately, and Karandai attempts to follow her husband’s instructions wholeheartedly. But, as they say, haste makes waste. Suddenly, the tail of her saree lands on a jar of sindoor and the jar comes crashing down, knocking against a cup of oil. Choti Munni runs away with the comb and breaks it into two pieces. And then Karandai bangs her hand against the door, breaking two bangles. She had worn them five minutes ago, after matching them carefully with her saree. What distresses her the most is the state of the new carpet she recently bought from Peshawar. It is splattered with oil—and worse yet, sindoor stains have spread across it, leaving large red daubs here and there.
The wife thinks: If only I could somehow restore it, or even put a match to it… If he sees it like this, he’ll eat me alive. Today of all days… How things have unravelled! What brilliant advice did he give after all? My life is a sea of problems, sometimes do this, sometimes do that—sometimes wear clothes like this, sometimes like that…! I was better off in my village than here. Over there, I’d wake up in the morning and finish the chores; the milk was fetched, and we’d make cow-dung cakes, and churn buttermilk. My widowed sister-in-law would take care of the kitchen. And then we’d spend the day at leisure… sipping on milk or buttermilk.
What have we achieved in this big city? Yearning for a drop of pure milk. Weren’t our rotis spread with homemade buffalo ghee so much better than these packets of hydrogenated vegetable oil? And I don’t know why he obsesses about tea all day…! Drinking it makes me nauseous. It’s probably why he has shrivelled up and become a thorn. The children are the same—attractive from the outside, but hollow within. He’s ruined everyone by feeding them bread and tea. It was different when he was the chief of Jansath. Those days, after taking care of the expenses, he’d still spend some of his savings on jewellery every year. And now?
‘Whatever is left—let’s put it in the bank,’ he chants. Is this any way a household can run? With the burden of marrying off the sixteen-year-old spinning on my head—and the other one already fourteen. And five younger ones. So what if the government gives us a car? All the other expenses are such a bother. Every day four or five people come to have tea… don’t they get anything in their own homes?
Karandai’s thoughts are suddenly interrupted; Mr Chauhan beckons from below. ‘Come quickly!’
The mistress of the house rolls up the carpet and tosses it behind a chest. She then opens a window and throws the shards of glass out. In this scramble, the bindi on her forehead spreads and falls in a straight line over her nose; her brows also become shaded in red.
When Mr Ajit Singh Chauhan sees her, rage bubbles within him. ‘Who knows which calamitous hour you were born in? In which inauspicious moment did my fortune link with yours? Go inside…’ He takes her into the room, picks up a dirty handkerchief from the table and fixes the bindi.
The driver and the peon standing outside turn to each other and smile. Somewhere else, the children screech.
The couple sits in the car, and the vehicle flies towards the Company Garden. A tingling sensation spreads across Karandai’s body.
As he steps through the threshold of the garden, Ajit Singh straightens his gold-framed spectacles and fixes the chain of his golden pocket watch. He flattens the wrinkles in his kurta, and that’s when it strikes him—Shrimatiji is not carrying the purse I had purchased from that shop in Aminabad market—nor is she carrying a handkerchief! He feels a rush of anger. Did I give it to her to keep boxed up forever? Cost a full twenty rupees. I am losing it in this mania around Binno’s marriage… How could she not bring a handkerchief? Is she going to wipe her mouth with her saree? But what can I do? What can I say to her in such a crowd? Swallowing his rage, swinging his cane, he goes inside.
What is a tea party? It is not just a banquet for important officers and high-ranking government officials, but an imitation of heaven on earth. The city’s merchants and moneylenders, with the future in their eyes, spend wealth like water. After all, they—at the cost of the common man—will earn enormous sums in the black market.
The Congress government has vowed to remove poverty from the nation; they are committed to uprooting the black market. But, as everyone knows, one has to yield to one’s benefactor. That’s why a banquet has been arranged for everyone, from prime ministers to clerks. Sofas upholstered with plush fabrics are on display; nearby are charming fruit trees and attractive flower cuttings in vases. Beautiful women float past like fairies from heaven, accompanying their husbands and friends in colourful sarees. Everyone is radiant; their hearts throb with waves of joy as they celebrate freedom from slavery—we are liberated.
Centuries of slavery have been crushed—and a variety of elaborate dishes are on display. A confectioner has been brought from Delhi, presenting Mohan halwa tikkis, almond-pistachio barfis wrapped in silver filigree foil, Lucknow’s famous stuffed gilori paan, Aligarh’s almond candy, mounds of fruits, and an endless variety of savoury snacks. Not only those who witness the party, but those who hear of it can’t stop their mouths from watering—especially now when nothing is available—not a drop of oil nor a handful of jaggery. Everyone is malnourished after eating the rotten grains from government-run ration shops, and what’s available is insufficient to even fill a stomach. Milk and ghee are distant dreams. Sweets and snacks are unimaginable. On the one hand, such a pitiable condition of life—and on the other, this unprecedented event. Of course, even at this event there are some unfortunate ones who are ill at ease.
There is no end to Karandai’s anxiety. Where have I gotten trapped? Surrounded by these fashionable and flirtatious women springing from all directions. She looks around but cannot find a quiet corner for herself—a place where she can stand for a few moments to gather her breath. From today, she resolves, her daughters will no longer learn English, no matter how many arguments it will cause at home.
Ajit Singh emerges and sits down among the guests. Another couple joins him at the same table. It is the parliamentary secretary, Mr Mathur. Ajit Singh stares at Karandai—and then at the empty chair—and then back at his wife. Blushing, she lowers the end of her saree over her forehead and shuffles to the chair. Mrs Mathur begins pouring the tea; the others help, but Karandai sits still, as though made of stone. Even under the powerful breeze of the electric fan, sweat drips from her body; her blouse is so tight that the stitches split one after the other. She feels short of breath. Oh, this fashion can go to hell, she thinks to herself, suddenly remembering: Hai, I’ve forgotten my handkerchief. She swears upon her children to never step foot outside her home again.
Mrs Mathur slips a spoon of sugar into Karandai’s teacup, and asks: ‘More…?’
Karandai gestures no. Rasgullas, pedas, lauz, mathri, bananas, oranges, sun melon… one by one she refuses each item offered to her.
Ajit Singh is furious. How can she be so uncultured? But what can he say at this moment? He braces his anger and speaks: ‘She has not been well for several days now—I suppose it is enough that she made it to the party.’ He swears to take full revenge once they return home.
Karandai lifts the teacup with trembling fingers and presses it to her lips. It seems there will be no beginning or end to her misfortune today. She has attended a few parties in the past—but today has been ill-omened from the start. Remembering the ruined carpet, she suddenly starts shivering, and in her haste, swallows a mouthful of boiling tea, scalding her mouth, and splattering tea across her saree. Placing the cup on the table, she brushes the tea off her saree. Mr Ajit Singh immediately pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and throws it at her. Mrs Mathur rises and begins wiping Karandai’s saree with her beautiful silk handkerchief. Karandai feels as though she is being pushed into the ground. If only the earth would split open at this moment and swallow her, like it buried Sita. Then she’d see how he’d take care of their seven children!
The attention of those seated nearby is drawn to her. Karandai does not touch the cup again.
When tea is over, she goes and sits in the car. ‘Drop me home first,’ she instructs the driver. Ajit Singh is occupied; he is shaking the hands of his friends.
When Ajit Singh returns home, he calls his wife to the porch. ‘Listen here!’ But there is no response. He enters the kitchen and sees their servant, Randhir, dozing near the stove. Kneaded dough rests on a plate nearby with thousands of flies buzzing over it. Ajit Singh enters another room and sees his wife putting clothes in a box. ‘Your tantrums have exceeded all limits now,’ he says. ‘You’ve left me too embarrassed to show my face to anyone again. Women don’t exist simply to take care of the kitchen. For that we’ve kept two servants… You need to learn to socialise. You need to learn the etiquette of moving in society. It won’t work if you behave like this. If you want to stay here, then… And look, there is a party at Mr Bagla’s house the day after…’
Karandai listens to her husband’s statement calmly. Her response is terse: ‘But I am leaving… at this very moment… for my home.’
Her husband is stunned. He looks at his wife with wide, disbelieving eyes.
And that’s when Kalua Chaudhry enters and says: ‘The tanga has arrived.’
The image and others like it — all based on vintage advertising material– are in the public domain, but that they are available at all is due to three sources. (1) Priya Paul’s collection and patronage which helped fund (2) the wonderful folks at Tasveerghar (Yousuf Saeed, Suboor Bakht and Jayant Talukdar, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Christiane Brosius and Manishita Dass and others). Finally, (3) we were led to all this goodness via Manik Karthik’s blog.
Tea, and its village cousin chai, plays an important role in Homvati’s story. Philip Lutgendorf, of course, has an essay on desis and chai.
Homvati Devi (1906-1951) was born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh (then United Provinces). She is among the first women writers in Hindi and was published alongside Premchand, Agyeya, and Mahadevi Verma. Widowed at 23, she took up writing. Her ouevre consists of four collections of short stories Dharohar, Swapanbhang, Apna ghar and Gote ki topi, as well as two collections of poetry. Swapnabhang (1948) was set in provincial Indian towns in the late 1940s. The stories are written during a pivotal moment in Indian history—when power was transferred from the British to the citizens of India. For a more comprehensive discussion, see the essay on reform and nationalist literature in Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita, editors. Women writing in India: 600 B.C. to the present, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 146-86.
Image courtesy Jagran website.
Tanvi Srivastava is the translator of The War Diary of Asha-san written by Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry (HarperCollins India 2022). She also writes fiction in English and was a member of the 2021 cohort of the Write Beyond Borders programme. She has been published in journals like Asymptote, Kitaab, Gulmohar Quarterly, among others. She is a graduate of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, and lives in Bangalore, India, with her husband and two children.