A personal reflection on the pen and persona of Dhiruben Patel

I shared not just my early writing, particularly my poetry, with her, but also the minutest details of what happened at school, my choreography sessions, my travel plans, and photos

A personal reflection on the pen and persona of Dhiruben Patel

Khevana Desai

They say old age is a second childhood, but even in her life’s ninth decade, Dhiruben Patel revealed just how much her first childhood mattered—keeping the child within her alive, and keeping those around her on their toes! To the literary world, Dhiruben Patel was something of a celebrity, a multi-talented Gujarati woman of letters, working across multiple genres. To me, she was the kindhearted, childlike, hardworking creative spirit who was my friend, philosopher and guide from the time I turned 15.

I shared not just my early writing, particularly my poetry, with her, but also the minutest details of what happened at school, my choreography sessions, my travel plans, and photos thereof, and the most personal secrets (that I knew would be safe with her). I wasn’t the only one. She had the gift of drawing people to her—be they teenagers or octogenarians—with the same ease with which she wrote. And she wrote abundantly, read avidly, encouraging all those with similar ambitions to do the same—to write well, to not waste a second of the reader’s valuable time. Even after she left Mumbai for Ahmedabad in 2015, our friendship stayed strong, over more than 22 years, till her last breath. She called me her ‘youngest friend’ and that is a title I prize above all others.

Dhiruben was blessed to be born in a progressive family, in pre-independent India, at a time when the nationalist movement was beginning to blaze. Her father Gordhanbhai Patel was a journalist with the Bombay Chronicle, and her mother Gangaben was a political activist and member of the All India Congress Committee. Inheriting a wealth of Gandhian values from her freedom-fighter parents, she adored Gandhiji and wore khadi all her life but never became a ‘Gandhivaadi’ in a traditional sense. Educated at Poddar School in Bombay, she completed her Master’s in English from Elphinstone College. A die-hard Mumbaikar, Dhiruben spent all her life in a comfortable, upper middle class environment, and was unabashedly attached to the beautiful heritage family home in Santacruz.

A voracious reader, little Dhiru used to write letters to herself, in which she made big promises to write good books for children, adolescents and society at large. Looking back at her work, I see how significantly she fulfilled that self-made pledge, reaching readers of all ages and genders.

When she entered the literary field as a writer in her early 20s in post-independence India, women’s writing, especially in the regional languages, was still in its nascent stage. Those who were writing at that time often wrote social-familial dramas that glorified the ideal wife or the ideal family. This did not make it any easier for a woman to enter the closed circle of male writers. After almost a decade of mainstream writing, Dhiruben still had to face—or rather fight— the pressures of the highly patriarchal mindset that held sway over the modernist genre of writing. Dhiruben defied labels. She wrote about feminist consciousness without being a feminist, she wrote about Gandhian ideals without being a Gandhian. Her canvas was wide and colourful but not fanciful or unrealistic. Her characters were never white or black, never restricted to binaries—rather they were grey, down-to-earth, practical in their outlook and approach.

She routinely bashed the stereotype that women’s writing must be dipped in emotional and painful sentiments. I’m thinking here of some of the delightfully hilarious novels she wrote, namely Pardukhbhanjan Pestanjee and Gagan Na Lagan.

She loved to write, or rather, as she always used to say, that was the only thing she knew how to do! This love spilled across all genres—full-length plays, feature films, screenplays, novellas, novels, short stories and poems. She wrote children’s plays, as well as children’s films Heda Hoda (2003) and Harun Arun (2009). Ashish Kakkad’s 2016 film Mission Mummy was based on her play Mummy! Tu Aavi Kevi (directed by Manoj Shah). She wrote the script for Ketan Mehta’s unforgettable Bhavni Bhavai (1980). She wrote songs for Gujarati films, which were rendered by music legends like Yesudas and Asha Bhosle. She wrote Kitchen Poems, a highly popular sequence of one hundred tongue-in-cheek, wry and gently subversive poems in English, which were subsequently translated into German, Hindi, Marathi, and, yes, Gujarati—lending themselves to refreshing renditions on radio, and dramatic adaptation.

All the awards that came her way—including the prestigious Ranjitram Suvarna Chandrak in 1980, and a Sahitya Academy Award for her magnificent novel, Agantuk (translated into English by Raj Supe as Rainbow at Noon) in 2001—did not erode the core of who she was. Unpretentious and unwavering, she wasn’t the kind who would be carried away, not even by great personalities.

She met Gandhiji as a toddler; growing up, she met Shri Ramana Maharshi, whose teachings her mother followed, but that did not influence her to embrace any ideology unthinkingly. For her, spirituality was simple humanism. To be answerable to oneself and listen to one’s inner voice was the only religion. (She later translated Ramana Maharshi’s works, out of respect rather than devotion.) She was not a radical feminist who wanted to change the whole world, but rather a persuasive proponent of equality and equity for all women, especially housewives. She wanted them to read, write, express themselves and form communities across borders. Her Kitchen Poems reflected her gender sensitivity with a light and literary touch. For almost a decade, she taught English at different colleges in Mumbai, including Bhavan’s, but quit the instant she realised that what she had to give was not being received in the classroom, and that writing might be a better vehicle.

Not content with merely wielding the pen in her own right, Dhiruben founded organisations devoted to nurturing women’s writing—Lekhini in Mumbai, and Vishwa in Ahmedabad. She started and edited journals, conducted workshops, and invited women to dedicate some time for serious writing, both in Mumbai and in Gujarat, during her tenure as head of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad (being only the second woman to hold this post in the Parishad’s hundred-year-history). She cared immensely for language, and worried about the future of Gujarati in particular, what with so many children becoming alienated from their mother tongue.

With her bubbling mind, she was rightly called ‘the 11th-hour writer’. There are innumerable anecdotes about her dashing off songs overnight—including a ghazal, which she wrote for the first time in her life, for a Gujarati film, on the producer’s demand! Even short stories and a novella, Vansno Ankur (Bamboo Sprout), which she wrote in just five days. Speed, style and substance seemed to come together for her at the stroke of a pen!

When I see the breadth of Dhiruben’s work and the breath of life she brought to every commission, I cannot help but be amazed. She remained loyal to her readers and to her publishers, she never compromised on her values and principles, she wrote from conviction and inner need. By standing up staunchly for herself, she stood for everyone. She fought bravely and well, and yet remained an ajatashatru.

Now that she has left us, all we can turn to for wisdom, consolation and laughter is the legacy of her work. I, for one, can picture her still writing—perhaps a humorous novel about her journey to heaven, or correcting typos in Chitragupta’s account of her life on earth.

KHEVANA DESAI teaches sociology at Mithibai College, Mumbai

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