My first encounter with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was an old Dean and Son edition from 1950. It’s sharp-edged hardbound cover, glazed and awash with colors, showed a man in a long frock coat bowing to a woman in period costume as she descended the steps. There were trees in the background and the smell of brown pages inside. The back cover, yellow and gleaming, listed the publisher’s other titles. I loved the book from its very first sentence and the fact that it was about large families.
In a large family, I always thought, one could never be lonely. My own family wasn’t small either, for there was my grandmother, my parents and us three siblings. But by the time I was six, I knew I lived in a shell, my ugliness lying over me like a second skin, deciding how I was seen and judged. I also knew this—my being ugly—deeply bothered for my parents. I blamed myself for the throbbing silences at the dinner table, the quarrels that began over long ago slights, about things that had happened even before my birth, but which midstream somehow came to involve me, and I knew that I, being ugly, had only added to my parents’ troubles.
The Bennet family had its problems, manifested chiefly in Mrs. Bennet’s worries about marrying off her daughters. But with every turned page, I heard too, the laughter and chatter, constant talk, the clatter of feet on stairs as the girls moved up, and down; the sound of a door closing as Mr. Bennet retreated to his study, and the rush of carriages and horses just outside the window.
But it was always Mary, the third sister, I wanted to know more about. The Bennet sister, bookish though not smart like Lizzy the second sister, and plain, unlike all the others, and always forgotten because she was third, sandwiched in the middle. I related to Mary in most ways, except that she was vain, and opinionated. I, on the other hand, was quiet and longed to hide away. And I couldn’t. My ugliness was so obvious, it made me stand out. At times I felt like a tortoise, wanting to hide with my ugliness like a carapace I could pull over me.
I was ten when mother first got us the book. Pride and Prejudice was part of a small collection of books owned by the ladies’ club library. We lived then in a small town, two hours from the sea, and the club had weekly meetings at the police officers’ clubhouse where my mother and the other wives gathered.
It was a T-shaped yellow brick building that always looked pleasing and comforting. I remember the expansive sitting room with its green sofas stretched against the walls, the long corridor to the left leading to rooms for visiting officers and their families, and to the right, the immense hall, with blue-painted walls and large church-like windows, where every year on Children’s Day, all the children would perform–singing songs, acting in skits–and everything was so arranged that the attending parents would present prizes to other children, and their children would receive prizes the same way.
I loved the clubhouse because of its very sunniness. It was quiet inside and the trees outside always chockfull of birds. Across the narrow road was the policemen’s training grounds, at that time unfenced, ringed only in places by old tree stumps. Once a year there would be an annual police event, and a cycle race made up the finale. For three years in a row, a police constable from another district in the north, won it, riding so fast it seemed to everyone that he almost flew. Away from everyone, especially the melee around, and I longed to do that too.
In the ladies’ club, the member elected the treasurer-in charge of the finances, also doubled up as the librarian. There weren’t very many books to begin with, and one tall glass-fronted almirah, with a curved wooden headstand, its front panes stained with dust and faint finger imprints, contained them all: several old Dean and Son books, terribly outdated issues of Women and Home, and Women’s Weekly, and Richmal Crompton’s William books, all about a scruffy, incorrigible boy who was very lovable and I loved these books too.
Sometimes, soon after the ladies ended their meeting, if some among them wanted to borrow books, the treasurer-cum-librarian would half-heartedly unlock the almirah, and let the ladies pick the books they wanted. I always think mother chose Pride and Prejudice because she had heard about it so much, and with some of her college friends, she had seen the Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier film version the time it finally came to a theater in Calcutta. After that, all of them, even my mother, got married and moved away into different lives. From the way mother said it, I knew she missed those days of freedom.
The librarian made notes in an old register, listing in three columns, the name of borrower, the book, and the date that particular day. It was a thin hard-bound copybook, the kind used in schools then, with neat blue lines, and always placed in the almirah’s bottommost shelf. She usually made one of us children bend down to get it. If the peon was around, he would first dust the copybook, before placing it on the table. He would dust the table as well. If the table was too messy, or there was no one to pull the register out, the librarian would merely nod to the borrowers, look over the books they had picked, and tell them she would make the entry next time she had the register. No notes had to be made, for she would remember it all.
But then she never did. I always supposed this was what happened when mother found the copy of Pride and Prejudice in the almirah. That on that particular afternoon, after a meeting over chai, samosa and pakora—the money for this came from the accounts managed by the treasurer—she who doubled up as the librarian, was just too sated, too full of goodwill and much else, to make the necessary noting. And mother forgot about the book too till months later my brother found it, among all the books in my small trunk.
At the annual Children’s Day function in the police officers’ clubhouse, unlike all the other children, I never had a role, or anything to do, and so of course, I was never given a prize.
I wasn’t talented enough to find a role – either as singer or actor. And my not finding place as performer was of course compounded by my ugliness. At times like these I grudgingly acknowledged all in which I was lacking. I wasn’t fair, or even delicate looking—like the other girls, my classmates at school, or like even the girls and women described in the books I read then. In the comics, the ‘good’ women were always portrayed as fair, lovely, long-haired, and doe eyed. These comics, not more than 30 pages, with four picture boxes to one page, were retellings of the epics and old myths and the teachers especially forbade us to read them for their strange English, and we, my classmates and I, did so, in secret. One could automatically make out the bad women in these comics; they were the temptresses, the ‘asuras’ (demons) who were dark, big, with big teeth to match, and nasty looking to boot.
One year I did try to perform, expressing to my mother my wish to appear as a cowboy in the “fancy dress” competition. One of my friends was appearing as a tree, another as a popular dancer, and two others had decided to dress up as “Laurel and Hardie,” who were very popular then. I thought it might be fun to be a cowboy. Some years ago, I had seen pictures in newspapers of then American president Ronald Reagan, sporting the wide low-brimmed hat and the flaring jeans so characteristic of a cowboy. No girl in my small town wore jeans then. Wearing one was unthinkable; it invited ire, and merciless harassment from the “eve teasers” as we called the streetside Romeos then.
I’d thought, in a sudden mood for rebellion, that the competition gave me a good chance to wear one. Yet my brother’s jeans, for he did have several pairs, proved too tight. To my shame and chagrin, I was just unable to get it past my thighs. But it was my mother’s disappointment that I found harder to bear. She and my father wanted me to fit in, in every way, to be like other children and not stand out for the wrong reasons.
At this time, I did feel sorry for my parents. More so for my father, whose eyes would go round with pity whenever he looked my way. It seemed there was little that could be done to improve me. How I looked was not in my hands and now I was embarrassed by how fat I was.
I felt then I had been far too vain about myself, and my abilities, and remembered what Mary, the third Bennet sister, said once in Austen’s book. “Vanity,” Mary had said, “was what we would have others think of us.” But at least Mary had some talents; she was a “most accomplished girl.” Her plainness, I remember Austen writing, led her to work hard for knowledge and accomplishments. It made Mary far too keen to display them, and most times, she misjudged her own abilities to impress others.
At a ball hosted by Mr. Bingley at Netherfield Hall, Mr. Bennet, their father, on Elizabeth’s urging, had to persuade Mary to stop playing the piano, and give the other young ladies a chance. I wasn’t talented like Mary, but like her, I was plain and did make a fool of myself, many a time, and that was why I so identified with her. And I loved books, and I loved Pride and Prejudice enough to keep the book to myself and later, never reminded mother that it had been borrowed on faith from the library.
In my seventh grade, we read an abridged version of Pride and Prejudice at school. The teacher had the interesting idea of getting us to enact every chapter after it was read in class. I was enthusiastic (like Mary) and yet practical (unlike her). I’d never get any of the lead roles, I reasoned, and so I opted for one of the minor roles; that of the droll-humored, ever-patient, Mr. Bennet. Yet within moments of seeing me perform, the teacher declared that I was just no good. I just didn’t have the disdain, nor the gravitas Mr. Bennet had.
“Not fatherly enough,” she said, looking around the class for possible substitutes.
Still I never gave up. You could say I had a bit of Mary’s stubbornness. In our role-playing version though, Mary’s role was cut out. “There is nothing much she really does,” the teacher had said right in the beginning while listing out the roles. “She is quiet, and why have someone just to sit in silence at the dining table, in the midst of a talkative family?”
I’d raised my hand then.
“Mary isn’t really quiet,” I said, “she had quite definite opinions about many things.” But I didn’t press the point, for fear of being left out of the enactment altogether.
Because no one wanted to play Mr. Collins, who, when you think about it, really makes everyone laugh, with his pomposity and self-importance, I happily took up this role. No one wanted to be the butt of all jokes. All I had to do was walk stiffly, with a strut and talk in a carefully measured voice. I used a nasal tone, cleared my throat often, and as Mr. Collins, I did make everyone laugh.
I didn’t tell anyone at home for this was a laughably minor role. It had come my way because no one else wanted to play him. I did learn something though: that I could play the joker well enough, and that even if people didn’t admire you or thought little of you, you could at least make them laugh.
It was my brother who found the book, the borrowed copy of Pride and Prejudice that I had hidden away for several months and read in secret. Those days I kept, all my treasured possessions, which meant only books, in a small aluminum trunk that my grandmother had gifted me. The trunk was small, no higher than my knee, and its lock was a simple thing that one could just click shut and twist to the right to open.
My brother always had a habit of going through my things, the times I was away at school and he had a holiday for we went to different schools. He envied the few books I’d collected over the years—my stack of comics, a few Enid Blyton books and my beloved William books of which I had a couple. I knew, as siblings can sense this about each other, that when he had the chance and though he had his own things as well—his own books and his cricket memorabilia –he’d simply help himself to my books without as much as a by-your-leave.
This time though his ransacking of my trunk was different. He found the forgotten book, Pride and Prejudice, that I had stashed away in the middle, between two Just William books. And that discovery, for he wasted no time in informing our mother, of a book I had hidden away, with no intention of returning, somehow considerably diminished his own actions. I had stolen a book that was from somewhere else, the reasoning went, while taking away your own sister’s books wasn’t really much of a misdemeanor. I knew the other things the grown-ups would also say. They would echo every moral science lesson from school, those that told you it was good to share. Besides, mother never said anything to my brother; he was after all the son, who would carry the family name forward.
I had been very anxious that whole day I was away at school, fully aware of my brother’s intentions. I knew the forgotten copy of Pride and Prejudice would be discovered, for I had no other place to hide it away in. I returned home to see, apart from a few comics and a couple of Enid Blytons, my trunk nearly empty. I found too that I had become a thief. My brother held up in bluff triumph, the copy of Pride and Prejudice, its colorful cover glazing as it caught the light and everything I had to say, every accusation I could make against him, even my tears at the loss of my other books, dried up. I had nothing to say in my defense.
For I was now a thief. And I learnt this: once you had been caught out, you could never give a good reason for your actions. You would never be believed. I wondered if anyone could be called a thief simply for taking something no one really cared for or had been totally forgotten. That book hadn’t been borrowed for a long while, I remembered mother telling us when she first got the book home, just as she had been vague about a return date as well. There had been no need for a reminder for the book hadn’t been noted in the register in the first place.
But to me, such thoughts, and my reasons for keeping the book in my trunk sounded inane, and so I tried other tactics.
“I haven’t read it,” I told mother, hoping to bluff things out.
“After all these months?” Mother said in surprise, and I knew she didn’t believe me.
“I forgot about it,” I said, far more lamely.
This time Mother looked as if I had shamed her.
“What shall I tell her?” she kept saying to herself, shaking her head every time she looked at me. My brother stole gleeful glances at me. We knew she was agonizing over how to explain things to the librarian. Mother was troubled about it that entire afternoon, and I felt terrible for subjecting her to this. Later, sometime before father came home from office, I heard her speak to someone on the phone. It was evidently the treasurer-cum-librarian, and mother took a convoluted approach to bringing up the matter of the lost and found book.
“Are books still being lent out?” I heard Mother ask.
Moments later I saw relief flood mother’s face, and she was nodding, and smiling and strangely and quite inexplicably, the conversation moved onto other grown-up motherly things. Only a few minutes after she had hung up, putting the receiver back in place, father came home. And when my parents didn’t discuss the matter, I knew it wasn’t really as important a matter as I had feared. Mother never let on as to what she spoke about on the phone, and I figured things out only much later.
By the next day mother had forgotten about the matter entirely. She had always too many things to see to. And I found that such forgetting, related to the book, was shared by many people, and stretched across several months. First, it was the treasurer-cum-librarian who had forgotten to make a note. Now there was someone else in charge of the library and she had no clue as to what had happened in her predecessor’s time. My mother too had forgotten: not just the book, but the librarian’s earlier careless assurances as well. What remained of course that I had not returned a library book, something I was duty bound to, that I had kept it with me, as if it were my own thing, which made it a theft of course, and me a thief.
It became the kind of thing that is always remembered during a family quarrel, when I was judged. It became a way to put me down if ever I was recalcitrant about anything. It was something added to the long list of my faults and drawbacks: I stole things too.
Sometimes all this made me want to be a chameleon, fading into the shadows. Sometimes I wished I was small enough never to be noticed.
I was eleven then, and this taught me some useful life lessons. I learnt to hide everything that I loved. I learnt that if I liked something too much, there was a greater chance of it being taken away, just as my brother had found my treasured copy of Pride and Prejudice. If I loved something, I realized it was best never to never declare any affection for it or show even the barest enthusiasm for it.
When it came to food, this learned behavior on my part delighted my parents. For I never indicated my preferences, either for sweets and desserts, or anything robustly spicy—for some reason, girls then seemed to have a taste for particularly sour things—and my parents approved. It was unseemly for a “good girl” to appear greedy about food or acquisitive in any way. But I hid my liking for other things as well, for fear of losing these to my brother. All these truths were things I learnt over time, as an unhappy, terribly lost adolescent.
For instance, if I loved a particular song playing on my father’s turntable, my brother would take away the disk or the player and deny me for days the pleasure of listening to it. There was the time my brother staked a claim to our father’s set of Encyclopedia Britannica simply because he had seen me going through one volume after another for hours. He took away, one by one, the 26 volumes to his own room where I was denied entry. My trunk had very few books, and his room was full of the books I loved. For a time, lost for books at home, I read the telephone directory and came to love it.
My brother’s jealousy toward me was most directed to what I felt about my father. Or rather everything that my brother did to spite me came from this. He did not want our father to show his approval of me in the few things I liked doing or was good at. And so for everything I really liked – the subject of history in school where I did well, just as I did at sports—I felt afraid to let father know, for fear of drawing my brother’s spite. I learnt to be secretive. In thought and deed. In turn my father despaired for me.
The book, Pride and Prejudice, came back to me, and it remained in my possession for many more years. Once I had managed to recover the book from my brother, it became even dearer to me. I listed out the many families in the novel, I made detailed notes of every character, drew diagrams and charts to show how everyone in Austen’s novel was linked, and of course Mary continued to intrigue me.
I always felt Jane Austen had been unfair to Mary. I wondered if Mary would ever be happy in her life. Would she remain a spinster? Some years later I learnt of Jane Austen’s own revelations in a letter to her family. Mary, I read, couldn’t obtain “nothing more than one of her uncle Philip’s clerks.”
I still compared myself to Mary, and such a similar fate made me fearful for myself. I worried about being married off, against my will, to someone dull and boring as arranged marriages were wont to do. I stressed at the thought of doing nothing more in life but being at home and having babies. My parents perhaps thought me capable of nothing, for I continued to do most things stealthily, and secretly. When my first pieces were published, no one at home ever knew. Not only was I afraid of being laughed at, I feared that like the things I loved, those I irretrievably lost to my brother, my writing too would vanish if it came to my family’s notice.
Yet this very fear made me stubborn like Mary. I went to university and later to business school where I met someone and we decided to marry. It wasn’t going to be an arranged marriage at all. To my strange surprise, my father supported my decision. I do not know if he was relieved, at the fact that I had found someone entirely on my own. He made those long trips to meet my fiancé’s parents, as protocol and tradition mandated. And then he made sure the wedding went smooth and pleased both families.
Years later, I understood something more about my father’s support. I realized my father had wanted to approve of me too, that he had never been able to show his love for me. That he in some way had feared my brother’s spite too.
Of course, I no longer considered myself ugly then. I’d also read a couple of spin-offs and sequels to Pride and Prejudice, where Mary appears as the unlikely protagonist. In one Mary features as a very observant sleuth, and in the other, she has her own rip-roaring romance. Characters, I realized, could be made to change direction, even bookish, awkward ones like Mary. They could take on a trajectory quite different from what their creators originally intended. Quite like people in real life. Mary had, and then, so had I.
Anu Kumar lives in New Jersey, and is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA Program in Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, The Dalhousie Review (Canada), The Common, The Maine Review, and elsewhere. Her book of short stories, A Sense of Time and Other Stories, was published by Weavers’ Press in California, last year. Hachette India published three of her works of historical fiction over the last decade, and she is also a regular writer for the Bombay based digital magazine, Scroll.in.