Keeping Corner is told from the point of view of Leela, a young widow living in a small town in 1918 India. It’s a compelling story. Leela was engaged at 3, married at 9, widowed at 12 before she even moved in with her husband’s family. Now, according to tradition, she will spend the rest of her life as a widow, shunned by society as unlucky. The book covers just over a year of her life, most of which is her year of keeping corner—the first mourning period for a widow during which she can’t even leave the house.
The book, inspired by the experiences of the author’s great-aunt, is a fascinating look into a different time and culture. My 12 year old daughter really enjoyed it and she very much wanted me to read it. I can see why she found it so compelling. Leela is an easy narrator to identify with, and her experiences are thought provoking, even though they’re relatively quiet and constrained, happening within her house for most of the book.
The rise of Ghandi’s influence is a backdrop to Leela’s story, as India starts to react against the rule of the British Empire and the restrictions of tradition. In fact, tradition and imperialism are viewed as similar—even when they hurt you, they’re hard to leave behind.
The descriptions in the book are wonderful—food, clothes, jewelry, customs, etc. are described in just enough detail for the reader to picture everything without being bogged down. There are many Hindi words sprinkled throughout. The first time a word comes up, it’s defined briefly or the definition is obvious from context. But after that the word is used without the definition. There’s a glossary in the back of the book if you need a reminder. I had some trouble keeping things straight at first, but I got used to it.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The unfair and unequal treatment of girls and women is the main point of the book, so it’s pervasive.
Engaged as toddlers, married as children, girls in their early teens leave their homes to live with their husband’s family and to be ruled by their mother-in-law. If your mother-in-law is kind, then this is probably fine. If not, then life will be really rough. When girls go live with their husbands, they drop out of school.
Leela belongs to the highest caste, so some of the traditions she chafes against are unique to her caste. Widows of her caste can never remarry. At the age of 12, she will be in mourning for the rest of her life, with her head shaved, her clothes plain, her presence unwelcome in her community. Widowers, however, are encouraged to get remarried immediately. One of her brother’s friends, devastated when his wife dies, runs away from his family when they start arranging a new marriage for him almost immediately after her death.
Roles are very strictly defined—there is woman’s work and a man’s work. Ghandi is shocking because he will do a woman’s work without shame.
Sex and Sexual Assault
Any kind of public display of affection is frowned on, even for a married couple—one couple risks punishment for holding hands. Before she’s living in his home, Leela isn’t even allowed to speak to her husband, although he finds ways to flirt with her and get around those rules.
There is talk of girls who get pregnant when they aren’t married—they often commit suicide or are quietly killed by their families. Leela’s annoying and judgmental aunt is convinced that this will be Leela’s fate if her mother doesn’t keep a firmer hand on her.
Once Leela is finally able to leave the house after keeping corner, her mother gives her a sharp piece of jewelry that she can use to protect herself—as a widow, she will be a target. Sure enough, a man attacks her and tries to rape her. She scratches his arms deeply and escapes. Later, through those scratches, she learns his identity. And that he’s raped before, without consequence. Leela is outraged, but she is told to keep quiet—the victims don’t speak out because it will taint them more than the rapist. Leela is afraid to go out by herself after the attack. It gives her yet another obstacle to finding a way to reach her potential instead of being an invisible widow all her life.
Leela lives with her parents and her father’s parents. She has an older brother who is often away, but visits as often as he can. She’s close to her cousin, who stays with her for a month or so after Leela’s husband dies. All of these people truly want what’s best for Leela.
In many ways, Leela’s family is progressive. Her aunt (her mother’s sister) constantly talks about how spoiled Leela is, but that’s mostly because she’s allowed to speak up and ask for things she wants. When she has to quit school to keep corner, they bring in a tutor. They’re still bound by tradition and not quite ready to let all of that go, but at least they’re willing to talk about it. Leela’s brother is very progressive, ready to fight anyone to give his little sister a better life.
There are strict rules around caste, as well. This is another one of the injustices that people are starting to chafe against. Being of a higher caste doesn’t solve all your problems, though—if Leela were of a lower caste, she could remarry and shed her status as a widow. Leela’s family has a servant who gets married. Leela and the wife, Shani, become good friends, after some initial jealousy from Leela at seeing the happy newlyweds. Shani teaches Leela embroidery and Leela teaches Shani to read and write. Shani gets pregnant and has a daughter—Shani is convinced her girl will be smart because of all the learning Shani was doing while pregnant. There’s a sense of a future with more equality.
Some of the injustices are simply mentioned by Leela—she sees nothing strange about the untouchables eating scraps from the feast, but the modern reader may be shocked.
Leela has a wonderful relationship with her tutor who opens her eyes to what could be. She encourages Leela to read the work of philosophers and to keep up with the newspaper. Of course Leela’s aunt sees this as dangerous, but Leela’s parents support her anyway. They let her take the exams that would let her go to a school in the city, even though her father isn’t convinced that she should go. Education is very much viewed as the tool of change—therefore it’s both valued and feared. It’s also used to keep the castes separate—the fact that Leela taught Shani to be literate is kind of ground breaking.
With Ghandi and his struggles as a backdrop, one of the main themes is standing up for what’s right. Leela’s father, even though they are wealthy enough to pay the taxes to the English, refuses because the English won’t give the poor farmers a break during the drought. The family is punished for this—their livestock is confiscated and the newborn calf dies. In the end, the livestock is returned and her father ends up paying the taxes. The poor farmers are given a break, which is why her father pays, but all Leela sees is that the calf died and they paid the taxes anyway. To her, it seems like nothing has changed.
Eventually Leela realizes that standing up for your principles doesn’t guarantee results—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. This is the argument she uses to convince her father to let her go to the city to continue her education. It might be hard and it may not work out, but he needs to give her the chance to change the injustice she’s facing as a widow.
Death, Violence, & Nonviolence
You know going into the book (if you read anything about it) that Leela’s husband is going to die, so that isn’t shocking. It’s made all the more sad, though, by the cute flirting he’s done with her and the positive light with which his family is viewed. Leela has escaped little by having this arranged marriage end prematurely. When her husband is bitten by a poisonous snake, it’s heart wrenching as lack of medical care ensures that he won’t survive. His death is very hard on his and Leela’s familes.
Later, Leela sees a snake like the one that bit her husband. Her father and others capture the snake and take it far away from the village—they don’t kill any living thing, not even a deadly snake.
England is involved in the first World War and there is discussion about whether or not Indian men should serve as soldiers. Leela is surprised to learn that Ghandi says this is a battle they should help fight, but people in the village doubt that boys raised to not even kill animals will find it possible to kill another person. Nevertheless, thousands of Indian soldiers fight and many are killed. The survivors return home to find India suffering even more under Imperial rule. And then English soldiers massacre hundreds of people at a peaceful rally. There’s a lot of violence, but most of it happens elsewhere.
Leela’s family and pretty much everyone else in the book are practicing Hindu. Religion plays an integral role in the culture. There’s a lot of praying and several religious festivals are discussed. Leela’s family is faithful, although they draw careful distinctions between faith and superstition—they explicitly value science and learning over superstition.
I think this is a wonderful book—informative, thought provoking, and compelling. It’s made my daughter really want to go to the local Indian restaurant’s lunch buffet to try a bunch of new food. Leela is a wonderful narrator, easy for a modern reader to empathize with. My daughter’s only complaint is that the book ends just as Leela steps off the train in the city—she’s hoping for a sequel.
Many of the issues that Leela faces are because she’s a girl—I don’t know if that will make it harder for some boys to get into the book. This is a great book for any kid ready to wrestle with issues of injustice, sexual assault (as a concept, anyway), and fighting against the way things have always been. I’d recommend it for mature 11 year olds and up. It’s a great read for grown ups, too.
Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth
Published in 2007 by Hyperion Books for Children
Read my daughter’s library book from school
My thanks to her librarian, who did a book talk that really did its job!