Vijaydan Detha’s Dohri Zindagi starts innocuously enough, like a fable out of Chandamama: once upon a time, in two villages set 48 miles apart, there lived two miserly seths who were inseparable. They married the same day and their wives conceived the same day. They pledged their unborn children to each other in marriage.

What comes next, though, is nothing like a conventional morality tale. Both the children turn out to be girls, but to save dowry and face, one seth raises his daughter like a boy. The two girls marry and to everyone’s surprise, discover the joys of same sex love. An outraged village drives them out, so they set up a remote idyll where a gang of ghosts protects them forever from the keepers of virtue.

Detha’s story published in the 1980s wasn’t a strident strike for lesbian rights. Like all the folktales retold by the Rajasthani writer, it is lyrically spun, full of desert flavours, humour and magic. There are ghosts, shape shifters, sex change and fantastical palaces. But the folk tropes are charmingly subverted to talk about patriarchy, alternate sexuality and gender equality. In 2000, the story was included in a compendium, Same Sex Love, put together by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai.

Dramatised as a two-woman act by the Mumbai theatre group Play On, Dohri Zindagi (Dohri Joon in Marwari) has taken many steps further. For a year now, after opening at the Gender Bender Festival in Bengaluru, the play has been travelling across India, presenting an unabashedly bold and explicit take on the story, and using it to speak up against intolerance and censorship. The actors stuck to the script but opted to be graphic about the lesbian relationship and the awakening of desire.

Dohri Zindagi. Photo credit: Narendra Dangiya.
Dohri Zindagi. Photo credit: Narendra Dangiya.

“His works feature strong, open female characters,” said Neha Singh, producer and the ‘man’ woman of the play which was stage last month at Studio Safdar in Delhi. “We had the choice of playing safe but the story is so steeped in sexuality that we decided not to be shy about the idea of a woman discovering her own body. We did worry about it shocking audiences but even in small towns like Dharwad and Thrissur we never faced any negative response.”

Detha’s stories are becoming increasingly popular in the progressive theatre circuit for their relevance. After Ismat Chugtai, Manto, Premchand and Harishankar Parsai, Hindi theatre is discovering to its delight the immense potential for drama in Detha’s works – every ongoing debate from homophobia and intolerance to repression and marital rape finds an echo in his stories.

Nadira Zaheer Babbar’s Ekjute presented three of his stories – Uljhan, Moozi Soorma and Nagin Tera Vansh Badhe – last August. Mumbai-based Ana Theatre has been travelling with a collection of four of his stories Raste ki Talash, Manushyon ka Gadhariya, Girvi Joban and Marichikaacross Madhya Pradesh. Chouboli, another outstanding Detha tale that turns every gender stereotype in fairytales upside down, was crafted into a dastangoi by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain.

Before all of them there was the inimitable Habib Tanvir who directed Charandas Chor (1975), which was also scripted into a film by Shyam Benegal. Duvidha, rated among Detha’s best works for its abiding appeal, was made into a film first by avant garde director Mani Kaul and later by Amol Palekar as Paheli. The story of a ghost who transforms into the husband of a young bride caught in a loveless marriage and brings passion and laughter in her life makes for irresistible viewing.

 “It is the baatposhi in his stories that lends itself beautifully to dramatisation, the story seems as though it is being spoken even though it is written,” said the writer’s nephew Prakash Detha.

Detha, like the poet-scholar AK Ramanujan, was an indefatigable collector of folklore and believed in their undying relevance for modern society. Actor, writer and activist Danish Hussain says that Indians today owe their understanding of the country’s rich storytelling traditions thanks to these two men. “In all our imperial, colonial, postcolonial talk about the new world order, we have somewhere forgotten our local cultures,” he said. “The young particularly are so swamped by technology they have no time for the pleasures of our great oral storytelling traditions like Tilism-e-Hoshruba, Kissa Tota Maina, Panchatantra or Jataka.”

A passionate chronicler of Rajasthani folklore all his life, Detha’s collected stories come mostly from around Borunda, his village near Jodhpur. Born into a charan family of traditional bards, a lot of the folklore came to him from his grandmother. The rest he assiduously and tirelessly collected from village women, many of them from marginalised communities like the Meghwals. Writing entirely in Marwari, he created an 18-volume compendium of Rajasthani folk tales, Batan ri Phulwari.

 Komal Kothari, who worked to put Rajasthan’s folk music on the national and global stage, and Detha together became the renaissance men of the state. They ran Rupayan, an organisation dedicated to Rajasthan’s rich folk traditions. But Detha did more than just collate folktales and print them – he reworked them, spinning out their 10-line plots into complex, layered stories, and weaving in a social context.

It is Detha’s trenchant anti-establishment stand in all his stories that makes them perennially relevant. He was famously leftist and as son and translator Kailash Kabir recalls, he had declared the state, capitalism, male dominance and religion his enemies. The folktales then became the voice of the marginalised.

“His stories ridiculed the feudal lord, the moneylender, the king, the patriarch and the gods. Lok katha was only the motif he used to speak out against satta (establishment),” said Kabir. “Folk stories are interesting, flavoursome and popular, reaching both the scholar and the illiterate so his voice was heard by many more.” Kabir worked with University of Michigan scholar Christi Merill to translate Detha’s works into English in Chouboli and Other Stories (2010) which won the AK Ramanujan prize for translation in 2012.

Vijaydan Detha in a still from the documentary ‘Partners in Crime’, directed by Paromita Vohra.
Vijaydan Detha in a still from the documentary ‘Partners in Crime’, directed by Paromita Vohra.

In his lifetime, Detha – he died four years ago – never drew flak or outrage for speaking up against status quo. “His stories hit at the core of our society but he did it so poetically and as someone who was from this land too,” said Hussain. “So he was never condescending, just a man who held an inverted mirror to our follies.”

Often, Detha would read back to the women who gave him his stories his own version of them. “They would say but ‘you turned it around completely… but we like it like this’,” recalled Kabir. “Most people don’t even know they were almost entirely reworked by him. They just thought these were folktales.”

Duvidha, for instance, is a story ritually told by the village ojha (shaman) to heal those who suffered chronic fevers. But in the original, the ghost is the villain who is punished for corrupting a virtuous wife. In Detha’s telling, he is the hero who you root for, the cuckolded husband is the righteous figure who mouths sexist platitudes.

But the ghost is finally bottled, and the young woman returns listlessly to her conjugal duties. Even animals can say no, Detha writes, but women cannot have a mind of their own. “He always spoke up for women, always, and spoke so beautifully,” said Neha Singh.