“Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls” by Usha Priyamvada

Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls, Usha Priyamvada, Daisy Rockwell (trans) (Speaking Tiger, April 2021) Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls, Usha Priyamvada, Daisy Rockwell (trans) (Speaking Tiger, April 2021)

Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls, Usha Priyamvada’s debut novel, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, is a seminal work of feminist literature, and a cult classic among middle-class Hindi readers. Released in 1961, the book is one of the most well-known literary pieces set in Delhi, and one of the first translations to come from Indian Novels Collective. The book follows the life of Sushma Sharma, the eldest of four siblings, who works as a lecturer and warden. Confined within the red walls and pillars of her workplace, Sushma’s life changes when she meets Neel, a younger man she falls in love with.

Priyamvada’s distinctive world, where women are at the center, explores the complex relationship between freedom and obligation. Sushma is a beautiful woman in her early thirties, used to male gaze and adoration. She dresses in ornate saris, matches lipstick and jewelry with her ensemble, and is a favorite among her students. But her father brings home a measly pension and she is the sole provider for her family. The financial strain leaves her feeling despondent. She’s isolated by her responsibility, which forces her to shed all desire, and she remains unmarried. The book, sparsely written, is swollen with emotion: of wanting to fulfill filial duties but also live a life for herself.


Priyamvada poignantly explores the idea of self-sacrifice as generosity, of adjusting rather than asserting, not just through the character of Sushma, but also through the other lecturers in the university, particularly Sushma’s close friend Meenakshi. Meenakshi is an admirer of what she calls “high-brow” literature and is worried her soon-to-be husband will not know who Jean Paul Sartre is. However, she is ready to leave her job and get married to this man not wanting to remain single forever, knowing that her work as a lecturer cannot be her “goal in life”. Conversely, Miss Shastri, a lecturer of Sanskrit Literature, spends her time gossiping and morally policing the students and staff:


She had developed a fascination with pleasure due to her exposure to Sanskrit literature, but not having found the means to experience it, she’d turned bitter towards life and the world.


Although Sushma and her colleagues have economic freedom, the exercise of this independence involves giving it up to choose a partner.

When Sushma meets Neel, she is unable to stop herself from being consumed by love. As much as Neel presents a possibility for her freedom, he also becomes her cage. Because she is older than him, a marriage would result in social ostracism.Neel further expects Sushma to leave her job upon marriage and move with him to Holland. In her translator’s note, Daisy Rockwell points to Sushma’s lack of freedom by comparing it with that of Neel’s:


Neel is free to move about as he chooses, to express himself, to be himself. Sushma is a caged bird, and like many women, her creative acts are limited to self-adornment.


In a cruel turn of events, her family deny her even this. Her mother takes her brand-new sari, a gift from Neel, without Sushma’s permission and gives it to her younger sister Niru to meet a potential groom. The sister drops tea all over it. A sari she so lovingly cares for is destroyed, and Sushma’s mother does not console her, nor apologizes. In fact, she chides Sushma for attaching too much significance on material objects


Priyamvada was one of the first modern female novelists in India to explore the uncharted territory of female desire and has been acclaimed for her outstanding contributions to Hindi literature including the Premchand Prize in 1976. Fifty-Five-Pillars, Red Walls was also adapted into a successful television series.

Indian Novels Collective is a non-profit organization that aims to bridge the gap between the English-language reader and the classics of Indian literature. Priyamvada’s book swept readers when first released due to the finesse in the writing and how it explored the conjunction of confinement and liberation. Although her work has been largely set aside by more recent generations, this translation sheds light on an important part of women’s literary history.

Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Her story was short-listed for the Toto Funds the Arts, Creative Writing in English Award 2021. Her work has appeared in Asymptote, Scroll, Cha, and elsewhere.