Shruti Swamy’s new novel, The Archer published by Algonquin Books, is an inquisitive read about artistry and passion. Swamy, a previous India Currents intern, wrote her debut short-story collection A House is a Body in 2020 which received global acclaim.
The title is derived from the story of Eklavya, a character from the Mahabharata. An accomplished archer, he cuts off his thumb as a sacrifice to his teacher, Drona. The Archer follows Vidya, a Kathak dancer throughout her life until after college in 1960s Bombay. The story behind the title demonstrates its most important message—the sacrifices one must make to practice their art.
The Archer is split up into three parts, with time skips for each. The readers first meet Vidya as an inquisitive child growing up in 1960s Bombay in a middle-class family. Vidya’s home life is hard—her mother is plagued with a mental illness and Vidya is expected to take care of her younger brother. One day, Vidya and her mother pass by a kathak class, and after persuading her mother to let her join, Vidya soon becomes infatuated with the dance.
In the second part, readers follow Vidya as she attends engineering college away from her family. One of the few women in her college, Vidya faces sexism in classes and faces pressure to meet the extreme demands that her male professors expect of women. Moreover, Vidya faces an internal conflict of whether to follow her passion for dancing or to work on getting a job in the engineering field. Overall, this was the most interesting part of the book—Swamy portrays the casual sexism of the engineering field as well as Vidya’s love for her art.
The story concludes with Vidya getting married to a wealthy man. As Vidya navigates the differences between her husband’s upbringing and hers, she also deals with the social stigma of being a married dancer. Swamy explores the themes of artistry, class, and passion throughout.
While the plot itself was gripping, the writing style felt disoriented. The book started off in a third-person point of view, with characters around Vidya being labeled The Mother, The Father, and The Brother. While this choice was meant to showcase Vidya’s unique point of view as a child, it felt trite.
The scenes often felt too focused on describing the setting rather than the interactions between the characters—paragraphs were dedicated to describing Vidya’s view of everyday objects, for example. Though this approach worked in some scenes, some of the secondary characters felt underdeveloped. For example, the second part of the book focuses on Vidya’s relationship with a girl at her college, a quiet engineering student. Though this relationship builds most of the plot throughout the second section, Vidya’s friend felt very unidimensional, as she was only described as smart. Similarly, Vidya and her husband’s relationship was a cliched “rich man, poor girl” relationship. What this meant is that the only character that the readers ever connected with was Vidya herself — was that intentional?
Though its writing may be disjointed at times, The Archer is still a beautiful look at the reality of attaining one’s goals.
Pavana Upadhyaya is a junior at Leland High School and an intern at India Currents. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and playing the piano.