By Kashmira Sheth
Review by Pooja Makhijani
From Kahani Spring 2008
In the opening pages of Keeping Corner (Hyperion, 2007) Kashmira Sheth’s
brilliant historical fiction novel, readers meet 12-year-old Leela, a pampered, “pretty
as a peacock” girl who loves her bangles and ribbons. Engaged at age 2
to be married at age 9, she is busy collecting saris and anklets for her anu,
the ceremony to send her to her husband’s home.
Leela is truly loved by her family. Her mother spoils her with pretty trinkets
and hot jalebis. Kanubhai, Leela’s brother, dotes upon her. Even Lakha,
the boy who takes care of the family’s bullocks and buffalos, plays with
her and teases her throughout the day.
But when Leela’s fiancé is fatally bitten by a snake, her family
is heartbroken. According to the customs of her Brahman family, she is forced
to shave her head, put her beloved, colorful saris away, and wear a coarse, brown
chidri, a widow’s sari worn in Gujarat. She is confined to her house for
a year—keeping corner—and is expected to prepare for a barren life
mourning for a boy she barely knew.
Leela’s fiery brother promises to “get [Leela] out of this misery” and
hires a tutor to educate his vulnerable sister. Saviben opens Leela’s eyes
and ears to the world around her and introduces her to a man named Mahatma Gandhi.
Saviben tells Leela about satyagraha, the philosophy of peaceful resistance,
and encourages Leela to dream big, much beyond her little village.
In an inspirational author’s note, Ms. Sheth tells readers: “When
I was 10 years old, I spent a few days with my great-aunt Maniba. She was a child
widow, and just like Leela, she wore a chidri and had her head shaved. I kept
thinking that she wasn’t much older then me when she was widowed. . .Leela’s
story is a tribute to Maniba and countless other child widows who suffered needlessly.”
Keeping Corner is not only a heartfelt story of self-determination, but a book
about women’s rights, civil disobedience, and the power of education. It
is not to be missed.