Prabha Khetan: The feminist par excellence

EB&W’s homage to India’s chauntress of words 

The EB&W Media likes to pay humble homage to India’s most revered Prabha Khaitan (1 November 1942 – 19 September 2008) through this column to re-establish her deeds for present-day generation. She was born in house no. 71 in South Calcutta in an orthodox traditional Marwari-Agrawal family. As she grew up, under shadows of neglect, so a bewildering contrast crept in to her emerging personality: revolt-resignation on one side, while devotion-affection on the other side, in a society she ashamedly found to be male-centric.

By Harsh Vardhan

Prabha attained a different sense of ‘reason’ by attaining post-graduate degree in philosophy. So tried to unlock the existentialist-truth by completing her doctoral work on  Jean Paul Sartre, the French writer. This brought her closer to the French feminist writer, Simon de Beauvoir who was contemporary of Sartre. Any reason why Simon’s novel, “Second Sex” was translated in Hindi by her? Was she inspired by the way Simon and Jean lived? Staying single, not getting married, yet remaining in long partnership with an already settled person (Sartre and Simon never got married but seldom separated)?

Look how she impresses lit-world

Feminism-fire was set ablaze within Prabha as she learnt more from the French writers’ relationship and she nursed a veiled cult: feminism is alive, yet in constant danger. By doing six poetic works, five novels, and three novellas, she put her impress on lit-world. Doing it in Hindi, she continued to live in Calcutta, the cultural capital of India.  Many of her poems have been translated into several Indian languages. Her style of prose and verse remains original with a distinct feminist twist to it. Had she lived in North India, she would probably have received greater ovation, some claim to this day. 

It rained accolades, awards and glory

Similarity, yes. Yet the contrast is too perceptible. Sartre and Simon adopted the left of the road, as avant garde campaigners. Prabha walked more on the right-side of  life’s footpath. She practised as activist, social theorist, and public intellectual. Yet also created couple of excellently successful business ventures, a health-centre and an export company. Both magnified her fame as a leader. At one time, she remained President of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce. She received several accolades and awards, some from Government of India. 

Prabha Khaitan’s legacy as being carried forward by the Foundation she had set up

Anya se Ananya” is Prabha’s autobiography she did in penultimate corner of her life. It removes chaff  from grain. She acclaimed; “my life was divided into three areas: business, creative writing and my emotional involvement; the first two were on track but my personal life gave me neither peace nor joy.” She expresses in her poem: “oh, pal, what do I do with my conscience, it has been waiting endlessly, for that implosion to finally wash off (my) feelings in music… the girl (within me) has gone to Victoria for a walk…” A nude narrative, she summed up, “karma se ho jeevan hai” (action is life).

Her agonies after demise of partner

What agony Prabha had to sustain after demise of her partner: “At the memorial meeting (1993) held for him (Dr. Saraf), he was remembered by several prominent personalities for his many qualities. He was called one of Calcutta’s most eminent citizens, a philanthropist and a brilliant doctor who was survived by his wife and children. Of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention.” It further inflamed her writing profile, the best coming out after this. 

She was a farsighted person and decided to manage her legacy. She identified a young person as heir apparent and set up:  Prabha Khaitan Foundation. The person happens to be Sundeep Bhutoria. The PKF  is wholly dedicated to the socio-cultural welfare and humanitarian cause. It supports the UNESCO view that cultural development has the potential to be an alternative way of promoting sustainable development in poor rural communities, especially in the third-world countries. May Thomas Gray be cited for this Muse of Indian literature (Elegy written in a Country Churchyard):

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

         And waste its sweetness on the desert air”.

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