Book House

“Lilavati”: This book is the only and heart-rending biography of a daughter by her father

Govardhanram Tripathi (Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
  • The book “Lilavati: A Life” by Govardhanram Tripathi has been translated from the Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud.


  • Lilavati was Govardhanram Tripathi and Lalitagauri’s eldest daughter. She was raised to be the perfect embodiment of virtue, and died at the age of twenty-one, consumed by tuberculosis. In 1905, he wrote her biography, Lilavati Jivankala. This is a rare work in biographical literature, a father writing about the life of a deceased daughter.


  • This book is a cross between literature in translation, social and political history, and women’s studies. Tridip Suhrud’s introduction dwells on the themes of the cultivation of selfhood, of nation and the ideal of sacrifice, which is sure to resonate with contemporary readership, especially women.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


Lilavati aged 8 or 9

One day, Lilavati stopped playing her game, came to me and asked, ‘Mota Kaka, what is in our stomach?’ I explained to her something about the intestine and the process by which food enters it and the way it is absorbed. She heard me intently, deep in thoughts, and then ran away. Soon, thereafter, her mother came and asked, ‘What did you explain to Moti, the elder one? She’s saying, “Ba, our being Nagar Brahmin is all false!”’ Lilavati began to explain, ‘Mota Kaka, did I say anything wrong? All this bathing and cleansing is only external, isn’t it? The stomach is filled with dirt and stale food! All the bathing that the Nagar Brahmins do is only external, but internal cleansing is something else.’

Behn, we saw during your ever-so-brief life the seeds of this wisdom grow into a tree.

Lilavati’s aged 10 or 11

‘Mota Kaka, what is the reason for marriage? Cannot people be allowed to not marry and remain single?’ One day, very subtly, Lilavati posed this question. The question set me thinking. When Lilavati was two years old, and we lived in Bhavnagar, I would take her in my lap and sing to her Snehmudra, which was being composed at that time, in order to put her to sleep. In that poem, a Hindu daughter asks a similar question to her learned father. Did Lilavati’s conscience imbued with the poem pose similar questions to me? What fate awaits her in marriage? In this country and in my caste, it is my duty to determine that part of her destiny and, as her duty, it would fall upon Lilavati to accept that fate. In another country she would not have the occasion to ask this question. Before these thoughts found a stop, Lilavati posed the question again and stood somewhat abashed before me. What am I to say to this child? As my anxiety grew, her eagerness also increased. Eventually, a response had to be given. I drew her closer to me and caressed her back and replied, ‘Behn, you have been born in this family and our customs are a part of our lives and, therefore, you cannot but be married. Mothers and fathers do not live forever and so, in their absence, the daughters need some protection.’ She said nothing and went away, apparently satisfied.

A blessing arose in my heart. ‘Behn, I too am one of our people and this life of a householder has been a fulfilling one for me, and that is all by the grace of God. May you receive similar blessings from Him.’ These were the benedictions of a human heart. How many hearts offer such blessings? It would be appropriate to say that all those who have daughters utter such blessings. Our scriptures in a myriad form seek to explain how happiness and sorrow are distributed and what laws govern such distribution. The efficacy of such blessings also follow these laws.

Lilavati! Today I am able to see the effect of my blessings on your heart. Before you posed the question, long before you were born, a father—born of my imagination—was asked a similar question by his daughter, also born of my imagination. The daughter commented on the wedding fixed for her by her father:

Daughter of a scholar father,

I studied under his tutelage. My mind broadened and heart pined for virtues.

A child, I cherished many aspirations.

But O’, I didn’t know the destiny writ for a Hindu.

Child myself, my hand was given to an unknown child. I

was signed off to purgatory by my teacher and elder.

The daughter of my imaginations, who desired happiness and pleasure, uttered words of dejection and dissatisfaction. But the profound concern that your father had for your welfare found a place in the deep recesses of your heart. The essence of your life, your unsaid words and your actions have always indicated your satisfaction with these efforts and it has been my experience and it has come to me as an object lesson that you desired not joys and pleasures but a life of duty, penance and dedication to your husband. No other desire has taken root within you, nor have they ever sprouted. This was the unsaid benediction of my heart and its effect was evident in the core of your being and through your actions. But this could also be said in praise of you; considering our relationship in this world, I cannot say that I am not partial to you and that a father cannot see anything but virtues of his daughter. But it is what it is. I do not write this in praise of you. I am moved by a conviction that the essence of your life and your words have a lesson for our society. You are the real author of this book. Moreover, after your death, many daughters like you have been born to many parents, they are alive and shall stay so. I can see how your essence permeates their soul. And I consider all of them Lilavati. Hence, dear reader, in this book, the name ‘Lilavati’ addresses many others. Consider that these words of mine are addressed to all those who are Lilavati, and that Lilavati is the real author of this work and it is through her father—bound in duty and religion—that she speaks to other Lilavatis.

Excerpted with permission from Lilavati: A Life, Govardhanram Tripathi, translated from the Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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