Mahadevi Varma, in her memoirs Skethces from My Past and A Pilgrimage To The Himalayas, depicts the interesting yet mostly pathetic stories of the people she had interacted with in her life. Varma declared that she never felt the need to create fictional characters for she believed that the stories of the common people and especially that of the women she had encountered were intriguing and worthy writing about. All the central women characters that Varma had depicted in her memoirs have extra-ordinary stories despite living very ordinary if not wretched lives. Two of such women that Varma portrays, Bhaktin and Sabiya, are very different from one another and yet share something rather admirable in common: inner strength and industriousness. These two qualities allowed the two women to stand up on their feet with their dignity intact in spite of having to face many hardships and injustices. Most importantly, Mahadevi Varma’s por- trayal of these women, despite evoking sympathy in the readers, does not portray them as victims of the society but rather as the saviors of their families.
The eponymous character of one of Verma’s sketches, Bhaktin is more than just a house- keeper and calling her a mere servant would not be doing her role in the author’s life proper jus- tice. Bhaktin was a loyal companion, caretaker and a friend to Varma. Despite facing many adversities, Bhaktin with sheer grit and hard-work marched ahead in life and tackled the next misfortune with as much fortitude. Bhaktin, who is married off at a very young age, is very ill-treated and “penalized” (Varma, “Pilgrimage” 12) by her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law for giving birth to three daughters instead of a son so much so that they refuse to provide her or her daughters with proper food.
Bhaktin’s husband was, however, always fond and appreciative of his “hard-working, bright, and loyal wife” (13) who was of great help to him during the process of separation from his bothers and in establishing their own household. Being the only woman of the house who toiled on the field, Bhaktin “knew the exact value of each cow, bullock, field and grove” and used this knowledge to secure the best of them as their share in the inheritance. Due to her and her family’s sheer hard-work, she “helped turn the land to gold” (13). Soon after Bhaktin, at the young age of twenty-nine, is widowed but refuses to remarry much to the disappointment to her sisters-in-law and as a revolt against their pressurizations “shaved off her oily hair in memory of her husband” (14) and decided to live as a widow for the rest of her life. While her decision to take charge of her own life instead of cowing down to family or societal pressure stands as a testament to her inner strength, the fact that she supported herself and her daughters, as a single mother, speaks to her industriousness. This very hard-working nature of Bhaktin does not allow her to slack in diligently carrying out her duties towards her mistress despite her old age.
Sabiya is yet another fascinating character that Varma depicts in her sketches. She is a harijan sweeper woman whose husband, Maiku, abandons her and runs away with another man’s bride while she was tending to her newly born infant. Despite knowing the hardships she would have to face being a single mother of two young children, Sabiya rejects a marriage proposal from the bridegroom of her husband’s mistress much to everyone surprise. In light of all that has happened, everyone labels Sabiya as “eccentric” although Varma herself “was unable to detect any trace of eccentricity in her other than her mania for work” (Varma “Sketches” 48). Sabiya works diligently and efficiently everyday. She single-handedly supports her two infants and takes care of her mother-in-law with as much attention and affection as she does her own children. When her despicable husband returns with his mistress, she not only forgives him but also takes them both under her wing despite their ingratitude and unkindness to her. Sabiya’s profound ca- pacity to forgive even those who hurt her can be so incomprehensible to the reader that she can be easily mistaken as weak. Sabiya, however, is anything but weak for it takes a great amount of inner strength to forgive those who are unforgivable. As Varma so very eloquently puts it, “To it was as if they were all her children, and their shirking of their responsibilities did not make her oblivious to her own obligations toward them” (54). Sabiya, like Bhaktin, chooses to become the savior of her family instead of indulging in self-pity and victimhood.
Varma’s depiction of Bhaktin and Sabiya’s life stories often leave the reader filled with angst and frustration at the unfair society which dangles its “ naked sword” over the wavering heads” of such women (Varma, “Sketches” 54). Varma’s poignant memoir-tales naturally invoke sympathy in the readers’ minds who might oftentimes deem these women as but the mere victims of society. Varma, on the contrary, seeks empathy and not sympathy for the women she portrays. Moreover, Varma refuses to represent them as victims but rather chooses to depict them as sav- iors of their families who with their sheer hard work and inner strength overcome every adversity and strive to move forward in life. Varma, through Bhaktin and Sabiya, succesfully resurrects the much deserved respect and dignity of many such forgotten women who often do great things in their mostly unremembered and unvalued lives.