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BOOK REVIEW / Beyond this veil of tears: Inside the haveli by Rama Mehta: Women's Press, pounds 7.99

FOLLOWING her marriage into a deeply traditional family from Udaipur, Geeta, an educated and liberated Bombay woman, enters the haveli. Henceforward she views the world from behind the muslin veil of purdah, her face always covered, her movements circumscribed, and her words and emotions tightly controlled.

The ground, it seems, is set for the most predictable of feminist tracts, but Rama Mehta resolutely avoids the obvious path. Set over a span of 15 years, the book traces Geeta's increasing accommodation to the ways of the haveli, her integration into the society of the women she had initially thought spiteful and empty, and her growing recognition of the customs she had so chafed against. At the same time Geeta's concern for her daughter's education and independence militates against the possibility of her complete absorption into the old ways.

The enclosed women, and the narrative itself, never leave the walls and courtyards, except for short car journeys, heavily veiled, to call at neighbouring havelis, exchange formal pleasantries, conduct the business of marriage and gossip with friends and relatives. The trivial stuff of everyday life, endlessly repeated, marks the passage of the years. An enormous amount of time is given over to the preparation and presentation of food, the choosing and wearing of saris and bangles, and the overseeing of the many servants. Gossip and noise are omnipresent, and Geeta chafes at the impossibility of solitude or privacy, even in her conversations with her husband.

This subtle, sensitive and intelligent novel investigates that most fraught of feminist debates, which can be crudely summed up as the baby and the bathwater. The haveli has to go, and its inevitable decline is implicit throughout the book, but with it will go much else. Geeta's desire to help educate her maids' children is of course praiseworthy and progressive, but by pulling this one thread, she threatens to tear a hole in a social fabric which sustains and supports even while it limits and confines.

Inside the Haveli is deservedly regarded as a classic in India, where it was published in 1977. By avoiding any breath of didacticism, Mehta allows us to understand the complexity of the dilemma, suggesting that there are many kinds of fulfilment, and warning that we should be very certain before discarding all our mothers' values, lest we lose in the process much that is irreplaceable.

(Photograph omitted)