A poet and her pets: Mahadevi Varma’s unique bond with animals

Sudesna Ghosh | Updated on September 24, 2021

An English translation of a little known book by the much awarded Hindi litterateur opens up a beautiful facet of her life

There is a saying that you don’t need to be related by blood, in order to call someone your family. Typically, a woman’s family consists of her parents and after that, her husband and children. But what if you love animals more than you like your fellow humans? And what if you consider your animal companions as your children?

The author of this book - well known Hindi poet and novelist Mahadevi Varma - did just that; the much-awarded litterateur often referred to as Modern Meera lived an ascetic life with mostly animals for company. These creatures were never merely pets to her. Instead, she felt a love for them that was reciprocated equally. She rescued and adopted and helped many voiceless beings in her lifetime.

When you start reading My Family, you will know immediately that the author has a major connection with her animal friends. While others may have laughed at her, she felt gratitude and pride because the animals loved her, communicated with her, and showered her with affection. Pet parents are familiar with the way that their pets react to certain situations such as a stormy night. But Mahadevi Varma was a step ahead, seeing the animals’ souls as they saw hers.

The book is a combination of happiness, the sad reality for animals, and inspiration. For example, the scene where the author tries to save a chicken who is taken away and eaten soon after. Then there are poisonous snakes who harm animals. As she lays each pet or rather, each child, to rest, the author’s sadness and strength radiate from the pages. In other words, it’s one of those books that make you cry with the writer, put your chin up with the writer, and even laugh and enjoy moments with her.

A woman who considers animals to be her family and rejects the social code of marriage and childbirth is probably not a rare occurrence these days. Often, women are happy to be child-free and be parent to cats or dogs. It is a matter of choice. Back in the day, however, it was tougher – though there is a list of women who were known for their work in their respective fields, stood firm and followed their hearts. Just like our author here. The animals kept her busy as she had a lot of them to care for. Plus, Mahadevi’s soft heart could not bear to see the voiceless beings suffering, so she even took in a deer from an acquaintance.

The original version of this story was published in Hindi as ‘Mera Parivar’. While Mahadevi Varma’s much applauded poems and novels and childhood biography have been widely disseminated, this little book of hers focused on human-animal relationships was hardly known till now. Translator Ruth Vanita has done an excellent job of conveying the writer’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Every scene can be visualised.

There is emphasis on the empathy that enabled Mahadevi Varma to read each furry family member’s emotions. For example, Durmukh the male rabbit seemed lonely but bringing a female rabbit home did not improve the situation. There was aggression and violence too. Animal behaviour is candidly shared by the author from start to finish. That means that the readers get a realistic picture about the non-humans being cuddly and showing affection to their human adopter. Along with that, there are the terrible incidents which only some animal lovers may be familiar with. Animals being killed by humans; animals killing other animals and the grief that follows.

Every human being who values non-humans and treats them as equals can identify with the sweetness of being surrounded by furry creatures. Every person who has rescued animals can feel the love in Mahadevi’s life. My Family does not treat non humans as unintelligent, uninteresting or unlovable beings. It isn’t the usual storytelling where the pet cat or dog shows up for a meal and leaves the scene. This story is not about a pet parent who serves the voiceless beings their food, pats their head, scratches the chin, and completes the daily interaction – this is a book about a woman who chose her family and the family who chose her.

This beautiful book is a must read for the kindness to animals aspect and for the sensitive way every piece has been dealt with.

(Sudesna Ghosh is a Kolkata-based author and animal lover)

About the Book

My Family

Mahadevi Varma – translated by Ruth Vanita

Penguin Hamish Hamilton

168 pages; Rs 319

Check out the book on Amazon


Published on September 24, 2021

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