In 1984, I met a young scholar named Shanta Acharya. She had just finished her doctorate in English literature at Oxford and was working as a teaching fellow in the English department at Harvard. I was a graduate student in English literature at the time and was on my way to Oxford for a year of research. I didn’t know much about Shanta’s back story, other than that she had grown up in India. We became friends and stayed in touch over the years. Shanta settled in London and became a recognized poet (Not This, Not That, 1994; Numbering Our Days’ Illusions, 1995; Looking In, Looking Out, 2005; Shringara, 2006; Dreams That Spell The Light, 2010; and New & Selected due in 2017). And I moved to Los Angeles and became a psychologist and a yoga teacher. In February of this year I received an email from Shanta letting me know she had published a novel.
A World Elsewhere is an illuminating and disturbing exploration of the quest for love and marriage in 1970s India. It tells the story of Asha, a beautiful and gifted girl, who is born into a Brahmin family in the mid-1950s. Asha’s father is a lecturer at the most prestigious college in Orissa. Asha’s mother is the daughter of the Secretary of State for Education. Both parents come from a tradition of learning, and both are committed to marriage and family.
Asha excels as a student of literature and is well suited intellectually to become an academic. Nonetheless, she has no interest in pursuing a career. She wants passionately to get married, to have children, and to stay at home—a role for which her mother prepares her from childhood.
Yet despite Asha’s interest in a conventional life, she breaks with convention by rejecting arranged marriage. Instead, she insists defiantly on marrying for love. Totally inexperienced in the realities of relationship, outside the imaginings of Jane Austen’s novels, she is unable to recognize her fiancee’s true character—until it is too late to cancel the wedding. Once they are married, the stress lines appear. With astonishing speed the relationship shatters.
The shattering of Asha’s marriage is unspeakably brutal. Following the wedding, Asha moves in with her in-laws and dutifully ministers to their daily needs. Her in-laws, in turn, are cold and unwelcoming. Asha’s husband meanwhile is disappointed with her dowry and bitterly realizes that he has overestimated her wealth. Moreover, limited by mediocre academics, he is unable to find a well-paying job. This intensifies his resentment and leaves him humiliated. Humiliation leads to verbal assault. And verbal assault leads to physical and sexual violence.
Unprotected by laws against rape within marriage and trapped in a world resigned to abuse, Asha finds herself faced with a devastating choice—to exit her marriage and become a social pariah or to remain in her marriage and risk being killed.
Foremost among the qualities that make A World Elsewhere important is the honesty with which it describes domestic abuse. It shows how education, class, family, and beauty are no stay against misogyny and rage. It captures the shame that suffuses the victim. And it illuminates the acceptance, by both women and men, of violence as a feature of the institution of marriage.
Whether Asha is able to leave her catastrophic marriage is the culminating question that the novel explores. To do so would require that she stand up against a system that tacitly endorses violence against women. To do so would require that she face down a patriarchy that stigmatizes women for resisting abuse. To do so would make her a feminist hero by default.
As for the woman I met in 1984 who grew up in Orissa, studied literature at Oxford, and managed to find her way to a teaching fellowship at Harvard, she was recently honored in the House of Lords for her poetry. A World Elsewhere expands her corpus impressively. It is a major addition to the Indian canon, a powerful contribution to feminist literature, and a novel for anyone interested in the subtleties of marriage.
Raphael Gunner is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. He combines talk therapy with mindfulness, breathwork, and the occasional posture to help clients find their way to contentment. He is also a yoga teacher and a devotee of Ashtanga. He can be contacted through his web site DrRaphaelGunner.com.