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Meet Mahadevi Varma’s Family: Gillu the Squirrel, Sona the Deer and Other Animals

Meet Mahadevi Varma’s Family: Gillu the Squirrel, Sona the Deer and Other Animals

Image: Sona the deer, Durmukh the rabbit and Neelakanth the peacock

  • Mahadevi Varma is commonly acknowledged as the greatest 20th-century woman poet in Hindi.
  • Her ‘Mera Parivar’ has never before been translated into English, and is in fact one of her most neglected works, hardly mentioned by biographers and critics.
  • In the book, Mahadevi records a kind of Indian urban modernity that encompasses ways of interacting with nature that are now gradually disappearing.

The very mention of Mahadevi Varma (1907-1987) brings to mind her lifelong engagement with the world and the word – as a pioneer in the field of women’s education; as a follower of Gandhi in the freedom movement; as a writer of prose and poetry who was one of the four pillars of the Chhayavad movement. 

Now, with My Family, a translation of Mera Parivar (1972), comes another realisation for a new constituency of readers – “her body of work begins and ends with writing about animals,” points out translator Ruth Vanita in her introduction. Reproduced below is a short extract from the introduction, and the author’s delicate meditation on a special member of her family – Gillu the squirrel.

A new genre of autobiographical writing: Introduction by Ruth Vanita

Mahadevi Varma is commonly acknowledged as the greatest 20th-century woman poet in Hindi. She is often called the modern Mira, since Mirabai is Hindi’s best-known woman poet across time. Mahadevi was also a prose writer of the first order and an accomplished translator, journalist and educationist. In addition to writing, she also painted, and from 1935 to 1938, she was the unpaid volunteer editor of the famous Hindi women’s magazine Chand.

‘Mera Parivar’ (‘My Family’) has never before been translated into English. It is the most neglected of her works, hardly mentioned by biographers and critics. As novelist Ilachandra Joshi points out, this book belongs to a new genre virtually invented by her, “neither prose nor verse…nor simply a sketch”. These writings are meditations in poetic prose, looking both outward at the world of all living beings, and inward at the imagination illuminated by these beings.

The genre that Mahadevi invented for autobiographical writing displaces the ego from its centre. Focusing on others, human or non-human, Mahadevi presents herself as one among many agents, the observer but also the observed. The animals whom she adopts observe and establish a relationship on their own terms with her, with each other, and with other humans. In her telling, the animals’ ways of seeing are as important as human ways.

Mahadevi Varma
‘My Family’
Introduced and translated by Ruth Vanita
Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, August 2021

Published in 1972, this book is the last of Mahadevi’s prose works. Memory runs through it and holds it together. Mahadevi ends her preface with the remarkable statement that all her prose writings stem from her writing about animals. She tells us that her first independent piece of prose was a memorandum that she, as a child, made about a chick whom she had saved from the cooking pot. She wrote a detailed note about the chick’s distinctive individual features, because she realised that if she could not remember and identify each animal, she would not be able to protect them: “anyone could carry them away”. Thus, her body of work begins and ends with writing about animals. […]

Biographies of Mahadevi often describe her as a lonely ascetic who devoted herself to the welfare of others. Mahadevi’s own writings, including this book, depict the joy and freedom of being single. […]

In this happy single life, which combined the pleasures of typical male and female existence, animals were privileged participants. Very few human friends were allowed to go beyond the sitting room into Mahadevi’s study, bedroom, and other rooms. Her portraits of animals depict the varieties of intimacy that she shared with them but not with humans, facets of her life not visible to the world: her bed where Gillu the squirrel spent his last night clinging to her finger, her study, where infant peacocks were nurtured, and the dining table where she ate her meals alone except for Gillu, who ate from her plate. […]

‘Gillu’ has sometimes been simplified and turned into a children’s story, but the plangent style of these sketches, contemplative, witty, and satirical, is not geared towards children. Mahadevi has a penchant for understated but biting satire; for example, the caged birds and rabbits suffer outside an overcrowded government hospital, and inside, the poor often die while they wait to see a doctor. The author does not compare the two; she simply juxtaposes them and remarks on the satisfaction the poor derive merely from dying within the hospital precincts. […]

Also read: The Bhasha Writer and Her Women

This book is based in individual memory but also in collective memory. Mahadevi records a kind of Indian urban modernity that encompasses ways of interacting with nature that are now gradually disappearing. Her writing brings to life a world where boundaries between human and non-human life, urban and rural, are permeable. This world survives today in smaller towns and even in many outlying areas of big cities. Before milk was sold in plastic or cardboard containers or even in bottles, a milkman would bring it in cans to the door and measure it out into household pitchers or even milk a buffalo at the door. When air-conditioning is not ubiquitous, doors and windows are often left open. This allows birds to build nests on ceiling fans, inside air coolers, in skylights and other niches, and in bathroom flush tanks of the old kind. Mongooses and snakes make their way into the house and slumber in dark corners, while monkeys enter homes through open windows and go to bathrooms to cool down with water or to kitchens to help themselves to food.

Mahadevi concludes her book by recalling how boarding school exiled her into the land of adult common sense. Perhaps it is because her exiled self never lost touch with the uncommon sense of a child that she wrote about animals in an unmatched way. Like many poets, she retains something of the child’s vision that does not discriminate among living beings: “Children do not perceive different levels of consciousness; they perceive just one consciousness. For them, animals, birds, and plants all belong to one family”.

Gaura the cow, Neelu the dog, and the threesome – Nikki the mongoose, Rosie the bitch and Ram the mare: A world of belonging. Illustrations: Antra K.

Gillu the Squirrel 

A yellow bud has appeared today on the golden jasmine creeper. This sight spontaneously calls to mind that little being who used to sit hidden in the thick greenery of this creeper and startle me by jumping on to my shoulder as soon as I drew near. In those days, I sought buds, but today, I seek that little life.

He must now be one with the earth in which this creeper is rooted. Perhaps he has risen up in the form of this golden bud in order to startle me.

One day, I stepped out from the room on to the veranda and suddenly saw two crows hopping around a flowerpot as if playing tag with their beaks. It’s a strange bird, the crow—both respected and disrespected, highly honoured and highly dishonoured.

Our poor ancestors cannot come to us in the form of eagles or peacocks or swans. To obtain something from us, they have to descend from the ancestral dimension in the form of crows alone. Our faraway dear ones have to send the sweet message of their imminent arrival in the harsh tones of the crow. On the other hand, we use the terms ‘crow’ and ‘caw-cawing’ in a derogatory way.

My thoughts on the history of crows were disrupted because I suddenly glimpsed a tiny being hiding in the space between the flower pot and the wall. I went closer and saw that it was a tiny baby squirrel that had perhaps fallen out of a nest and was now being sought by the crows as an easy meal.

Two wounds from the beaks of the crow couple had terrified this little life, so he stuck, unmoving, to the flowerpot.

Everyone said that he would not survive the injuries caused by the crows pecking him, so he should be left where he was.

But I couldn’t bring myself to leave him there. I gently picked him up and brought him into my room, where I wiped the blood off with a piece of cotton wool and put penicillin ointment on his injuries.

I soaked a thin wick of cotton wool in milk and somehow put it to his tiny mouth, but the mouth would not open, and drops of milk rolled down on both sides.

After several hours of treatment, a drop of water managed to make its way into his mouth. By the third day, he was so reassured and so much better that he held on to my finger with his two small paws and looked around with eyes like blue glass beads.

Gillu: the squirrel that knew its mind. Illustration: Antra K.

In three or four months, his silky fur, fluffy tail and mischievously gleaming eyes struck everyone with wonder.

We turned the common noun for his species into a proper noun and began to call him Gillu. I spread some cotton wool in a lightweight basket meant for flowers and suspended it by a cord at the window.

This was Gillu’s home for two years. He would rock his home and swing in it while making observations about who knows what inside the room and outside the window with his glass bead like eyes. Everyone was surprised by his sagacity and his various feats.

Whenever I sat down to write, his desire to attract my attention grew so strong that he devised a good strategy.

He would approach my feet, then ascend the curtain with a whirr and then descend at the same speed. This running up and down would continue until I got up to catch hold of him.

Sometimes, I would put Gillu in a long envelope in such a way that, except for his head and forepaws, all of his slender body was enclosed in the envelope. In this odd situation, he would sometimes stand for hours on the table, propped against the wall, and keep watching my activities with his shiny eyes.

When he grew hungry, he would inform me by chirping, and when he received a cashew or a biscuit, he would remain in the same position, holding it in his forepaws outside the envelope, and keep nibbling at it.

Then came the first springtime of Gillu’s life. The fragrance of the neem-chameli gently wafted into my room. Squirrels outside the window came up to the screen and said who knows what with their chirps.

Seeing Gillu sitting close to the screen and gazing out at them in a sympathetic manner made me feel that it was necessary to free him.

I removed some nails to open one corner of the screen. Going out by this path, Gillu breathed the air of freedom. Protecting such a small being from domestic dogs and cats inside the house had, in any case, become a problem.

When I go out, my room is kept locked because of the important papers and letters kept in it. When I returned from college and the room was opened, the moment I set foot inside, Gillu would enter through his doorway in the screen and race up and down from my foot to my head and from my head to my foot. This became a daily habit.

When I left the room, he too would go out by the open screen in the window and act as the leader of the squirrel flock, leaping and bounding on every branch, and at exactly four o’clock, he would come in through the window and begin swinging in his swing.

I don’t know when or how he developed the desire to startle me. He would hide, sometimes among flowers in the vase, sometimes in the folds of the curtains and sometimes among the leaves of the golden jasmine.

I have many animals and birds who are greatly attached to me, but I don’t remember any of them daring to eat from my plate with me.

Gillu was an exception. As soon as I reached the dining room, he would go out of the window, scurry across the yard wall and veranda, reach the table and try to sit in my plate. With great difficulty, I taught him to sit near the plate. Sitting there, he would delicately pick up a grain of rice at a time and neatly consume it. Cashews were his favourite food, and if he didn’t get cashews for several days, he would either stop eating other food items or else fling them down from his swing.

Around that time, I was injured in a road accident and had to be hospitalized for some days. During those days, whenever my room was opened, Gillu would jump down from his swing and run up, but as soon as he saw someone else, he would race back to sit in his nest. Everyone who visited gave him cashews, but when I returned from the hospital and cleaned his swing, I found it full of cashews, which showed how little he had eaten of his favourite food during those days.

While I was recovering, he would sit by my pillow and stroke my head and hair so gently with his tiny paws that when he left, it felt as if a nurse had left.

When I was working on summer afternoons, Gillu would neither go out nor sit in his swing. He devised a way to stay with me and also escape the heat. He would lie down on the clay water goblet near me and thus remain cool as well as close to me.

Squirrels do not live longer than two years, so Gillu’s life’s journey too drew to its close. One day he neither ate nor went out. At night, in his last agony, he came to bed with me, holding on to my finger, and stayed stuck to my hand, still holding with his cold paws the same finger that he had clung to in infancy when he was near death.

His paws were so cold that I woke up and turned on the heater to give him some warmth. But when the first ray of dawn touched him, he went to sleep to wake into some other life. His swing has been taken down and put away, and the screen has been closed, but a new generation of squirrels keeps chirping outside the screen, and spring keeps returning to the golden jasmine. Gillu has been buried beneath the golden jasmine because it was his favourite creeper and also because the belief that his little body will blossom some spring day in a small, yellow jasmine flower continues to console me.

Published with permission of Penguin from My Family by Mahadevi Varma, translated by Ruth Vanita.

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