Ret Ki Machli: An autobiographical novel that was conveniently forgotten

ByMayank Jain Parichha
Feb 10, 2023 09:03 AM IST

Ret Ki Machli is the story of a young woman who falls in love with and marries an author against the wishes of her family. Many believe Kanta Bharti wrote her own story

Among the lesser-known episodes of the Hindi literary world is a novelistic response by Kanta Bharti to her former husband Dharamvir Bharati and his first novel Gunahon ka Devta (1949). Bharati had a reputation both as a novelist and as an editor, but his first wife Kanta mostly remained on the margins of literary history.

Ret Ki Machli: A tale of love, toxicity and infidelity (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Ret Ki Machli: A tale of love, toxicity and infidelity (Shutterstock)

Her novel Ret Ki Machli (1975) attempts to reclaim a space that was perhaps denied to her. It also contains a narrative that left many Hindi readers wondering if she was telling her own story through a novel.

Ret ki Machli, Kanta Bharti, 148pp, ₹305, Lokbharti Prakashan
Ret ki Machli, Kanta Bharti, 148pp, ₹305, Lokbharti Prakashan

Bookseller and publisher Sanjana Tiwari believes it “appears to be her own story”. In a blog post on Jankipul, Sapna Singh states that the Hindi literary fraternity of the time ignored the book because “Kanta was the first wife of Hindi literature’s stalwart” and probably saw it as “an attempt to vent out the frustration of the bitter experiences of their married life.”

Written in an edgy tone, Ret Ki Machli is the story of the young Kuntal who falls in love with an author named Shobhan and goes against her family to marry him. Her high hopes for the marriage are dashed when Shobhan cheats on her.

Shoban definitely appears to have been inspired by Dharamvir Bharati. While the fictional character is the editor of a magazine named Kasauti, Bharati himself edited Dharmayug. The character Father Paul also resembles a Christian priest in Allahabad who was close to Bharati in his youth.

However, it isn’t clear how much creative liberty Kanta took in creating the character of Shobhan, who is extremely vile and narcissistic. He gaslights his wife and cheats on her with Meenal (his “moohboli behen”/sworn sister). In professional life too, he is dishonest. Even though his rival Vermaji edited the first issue of Kasauti, Shobhan steals the credit. He gets all the media attention, while Vermaji is neglected.

Dharamvir Bharati (HT Photo)
Dharamvir Bharati (HT Photo)

In the real world, though, Dharamvir Bharati never faced any such allegations and remained a revered figure in Hindi literature. In terms of craft, Ret Ki Machli falls short because it makes no effort to offer the viewpoints of characters other than the protagonist. Shobhan is primarily seen through Kuntal’s eyes and the reader learns nothing about his inner life. But though the plot is confusing, the story and the premise a little shaky, and the characters resemble cardboard cutouts, the book is unputdownable.

Unexpectedly, the work’s importance lies in the fact that it contextualises Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahon Ka Devta, an iconic romance that has been hugely popular for many decades. The protagonist Chander falls in love with his mentor’s daughter Sudha, but bound by social norms, he asks her to marry as per her father’s choice. This creates turmoil in their lives.

As soon as Sudha marries, Chander becomes involved in an intimate relationship with Pammi, a somewhat bohemian woman. Chander and Vinti’s (Sudha’s cousin sister) relationship is also characterised by intense sexual tension. Both live in the same house after Sudha marries. Eventually, after Sudha dies, he marries Vinti.

While Gunahon Ka Devta was a story of two lovers, Ret Ki Machli imagines their life after they marry. Therefore, it is clear that Kanta did not write her novel as a response to Gunahon Ka Devta. She also made no public comments about the matter. Still, Ret Ki Machli forces readers to draw connections between the two novels.

Gunahon ka Devta, Dharamvir Bharati, ₹240, Bharatiya Jnanpith
Gunahon ka Devta, Dharamvir Bharati, ₹240, Bharatiya Jnanpith

This is because the lovers in Gunahon Ka Devta were unable to marry each other and readers perpetually yearn for them to do just that. It is this yearning that makes many readers wonder, “What if they had married?” Ret Ki Machli, written from a woman’s perspective, reimagines similar lead characters as a married couple. Chander, for Sudha, appears the same as the pre-marriage Shobhan for Kuntal.

Interestingly, there are other narrative threads that support the assumption that Ret Ki Machli is a response to Gunahon Ka Devta. Several episodes of Kanta’s personal life appear in the narrative. Secondly, Chander’s defence of his bad behaviour toward Sudha and her cousin Vinti is reminiscent of Shobhan’s defence of his rudeness and violence toward Kuntal. Chander, however, does not appear to be evil like Shobhan. Perhaps this is because Chander never comes across as remorseless.

In a blogpost, writer Rishabh Sriwastava points out that since Chander experiences “sexual tension with every female character in the novel”, he seems to exercise unchecked power over them. In Ret Ki Machli too Shobhan exercises considerable power over Kuntal. He demeans her and makes her do everything that suits his selfish motives.

Kanta Bharti does not shy away from describing the details of Shobhan and Meenal’s sexual adventures, with the two often being intimate in Kuntal’s presence. There are scenes of Shobhan being aroused by Meenal and then turning his attentions towards Kuntal though she is pregnant. Such writing is rare in Hindi literature. In Gunahon ka Devta, Chander’s character is deviant but never vile. Ret ki Machli goes a step further through the metaphors of the “blue room” and the “jungali latar” (wild vine) in the garden. While the former indicates the bedroom that’s the scene of Shobhan’s excesses, the latter references Meenal. The reader comes away with a picture of the protagonist as someone who is utterly trapped.

Author Kanta Bharti (Rajkamal Prakashan)
Author Kanta Bharti (Rajkamal Prakashan)

Ret Ki Machli depicts the emotional contortions of being in a toxic relationship and also delineates how the besotted person feels unable to escape from the thrall of the abusive partner.

As for Gunahon Ka Devta, though it occasionally treats Chander as the “god of sacrifices”, his vices are fairly visible throughout the narrative. Still, by eloquently portraying the complex questions about love, lust, and sexuality that a young man in a patriarchal set-up must negotiate, Dharamvir Bharti makes his lead character somewhat “likable”.

Since we are now far removed from the worlds of both Gunahon ka Devta and Ret Ki Machli, it is futile to speculate about Dharamvir Bharti and his first wife Kanta’s life together. However, if you have read and loved Gunahon Ka Devta, Ret Ki Machli is an interesting companion piece that offers a counterpoint to that classic of Hindi literature and adds immensely to the reading experience.

Mayank Jain Parichha is an independent bilingual journalist. He writes about the environment, wildlife, culture, literature, and politics

The views expressed are personal

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