Title: Keeping Corner
Author: Kashmira Sheth
Genre: Historical Fiction, South Asian
Age Level: 7-10
Keeping Corner is the story of Leela, a 12 year-old Indian girl living with her family in the rural village of Jameel, in the Indian state of Gujarat in 1918. Leela's family is Brahman, the highest caste in India's strict class system. At 2 she was engaged to Ramanlal, a young boy from another Brahman family. At nine they were married, though Leela would continue to live with her family on their estate until her anu, a ceremony officially welcoming the girl into her new family. Just months before her anu, Ramanlal is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. This makes Leela a child widow. According to her caste, she must shave her head, wear only the widow's chidri, and stay in the house for a year, keeping corner for her dead husband. Leela, who had been a happy, rather spoiled young girl with a love for fashion and jewelry, quickly falls into despair, wondering how she can live the rest of her life being shunned by her community for being bad luck. She finds help and solace in her brother, Kanubhai, her teacher Saviben, a lower caste woman named Shani, and ultimately in Gandhi's non-violent movement to overthrow the English occupying their country.
Sheth's story is really a coming of age novel, albeit an unconventional one by Western standards. Her writing is beautiful-her characters speak in a kind of lyrical, poetic style that suits the overall mood of the piece. She draws us into Leela's world, even as that world shrinks to only those things inside the walls of her own house. You feel her frustration at the inherent unfairness of her situation. Lower caste widows are allowed to remarry, and so are men even of her own caste. No one sees these people as bad luck. She feels trapped by tradition, as do many of the people who love her most and grieve for what has befallen her. Sheth's descriptions of the small town of Jameel, the acitivities of the community, the small world of Leela's house, and ultimately the historic period in which the novel are set gave me a deeper understanding of a part of the world that I am only beginning to understand.
This novel is well-suited for classroom use, if for no other reason than the insight it gives about a culture foreign to many of us. Additionally, it could be used in a social justice context, with it's themes of feminism, classism, civil disobedience, and standing up for what is right despite hundreds of years of tradition. Listed below are teaching resources I've found for this book.
Intermediate Lesson Plans: The Rights of the Child
Wild Geese Guides: Keeping Corner