Readers who love the classical Indian dance form of kathak will find much to like in this lyrical first novel. This work of fiction is set in 16th century Rajasthan, a land so parched that “a child of five is likely never to have seen rain,” as Anjali Mitter Duva observes in the opening sentence.
The story begins and ends with the monumental events of rainfall, and these serve as bookends to this tale of how young Adhira is dedicated to the temple, and becomes a devdasi (servant of god). Her father, Gandar, the temple dance master, has no doubt that it is Adhira’s destiny to be a temple dancer. “We do not choose our lives …. We do what we are meant to do, and we do so with joy.” He dismisses his wife’s concerns summarily, his faith unwavering. Gandar’s love of dance is echoed in the beauty of the author’s prose:
“When I opened my eyes, I thought I saw a thousand deities looking down at me. They seemed to have stepped away from the walls and to have taken on color and movement.
They were seated on the heads of cobras, emerging from lotus flowers, surrounded by auras of light. They held maces, conch shells, garlands of pearls. On their heads were peacock feathers, crescent moons, third eyes. I faltered for a moment, wondering if I had really called them forth.”
Duva’s skillful rhythm of writing causes the dance to merge with the words: “He put his hand on the horse’s flank. Dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. Mahendra reached up farther and caught a handful of mane.” The ensuing word pictures come alive with movement.
And what of the devdasi? Was Adhira a victim, oppressed and exploited, preyed upon by landowners and priests like the despicable Sai Prasad? Or did her marriage to a deity rather than a single man provide her with greater autonomy in the position she occupied, financially supported by the state, and far more in control of her destiny than her sister, a housewife? The author seems to suggest that both might have been true to some extent, while acknowledging that she has “taken some liberties” with historical fact. I felt that a keener student of the history of ideas would populate the interior lives of these women differently. Would a woman who chooses sati question the power of the priest, or the dedication of her daughter to the temple? Some of these anachronistic portrayals highlight the difficulty of doing good historical fiction.
A thread of disturbing orientalism seems to have similarly crept into the writing. Every time I read a description of “Surya the Sun” or “Vayu the Wind,” it struck a jarring note. Then there is the authorial license to fictionalize. The generalization of the word devdasi, a specific nomenclature for temple dancers associated much more with bharatnatyam than kathak might trouble some purists. The choice to sacrifice the geographic particularity and specific historic experience of these devdasis, and relocate them to the arid locale of Rajasthan adds to the “tourist appeal” of the story, but detracts from its authenticity.
I took these contradictions to author Anjali Mitter Duva, who candidly addressed some of these tensions in the writing.
How can a mother have feminist thoughts and yet contemplate sati?
The character of Girija is complex, and her actions may seem incongruous, but don’t we all know women like this? The woman who goes out in the street to fight for women’s rights and equality, then comes home to clean the house and cook dinner for her husband? In this case, sati is of course a drastic and, for most, unimaginable choice. I hadn’t originally planned on it, but at that moment in the story, it makes sense for her. Here was a woman who felt that she’d done everything she could for the people she loved. Their fates were now completely out of her hands. She was losing what little eyesight she’d ever had, her husband was gone, the whole tradition that had sustained her family, whether she liked it or not, had crumbled. And she’d always had a fascination with fire, with destruction, and with escape. It all came together not as political statement or something that I, as the author, wanted to bring up, but because it made sense for the story and the character.
A modern reader can find it hard to reconcile the sacred and the profane. How can a devadasi be sacred and yet a sanctioned provider of sexual services to wealthy patrons ?
This dichotomy, or duality, is one that has existed in Indian society for so long, and still, to some extent, exists. Not so much as sacred/profane but as revered/abused. There is still a tendency to revere the Mother—as creator, as Mother Earth, as provider of sustenance—and yet women are ogled and groped and much worse on a regular basis.
Honestly, I have a hard time with this myself. Researching and writing this book, and the next ones in the set I have planned, has allowed me to explore this issue, to illuminate some aspects of it, but I can’t claim to be providing an explanation.
Who is the imagined reader of your book?
Me. I do believe in the saying that you should write the book you want to read. Beyond that, my imagined reader is one with a curiosity and openness about the world, one who wants to be transported to another place, and one who enjoys learning as part of the reading experience.
Geetika Pathania Jain is the Managing Editor of India Currents.