She gives birth with her back against a dead peepal tree, under the burning sun, taking a break from tilling the dry, parched land. She heaves through the pain, the burning and the laceration till she sees the sex of her child. “She squeezed her thighs together hard till her face swelled and the veins in her temples bulged out. She did not let go till the girl was still.”
It is as if Jasoda, after whom Kiran Nagarkar’s latest novel is named, and the parched land that plays a key role in this story of stoic survival, shake the reader in the opening pages to say: Prepare yourself; this is not a tale for the faint-hearted.
Female infanticide; the mind-bending ravages of drought; never-ending migration to ruthless city pavements in search of survival; the corruptive, destructive attractiveness of power with its heart of darkness; the transformative magic of education — Jasoda skims through these and half-a-dozen other issues of contemporary India as Nagarkar weaves another of his rollicking tales.
But at the core, Jasoda is the story of every woman for whom, in the words of Maya Angelou, “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival… while one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”
“My Jasoda spends her early years in the back of beyond, but as I have learnt time and again, there is no dearth of Jasodas in slums of the major metropolises, not just in India but all over the world,” Nagarkar writes in the epilogue. “Again, she’s not necessarily found in extreme poverty alone but also in middle-class and even affluent homes. The husband will make babies with Jasoda, take off, come back and once again live off her. That journey called life ensures that Jasoda almost never has an easy time.”
Nagarkar distills in Jasoda various facets of those stoic, hardy women who dutifully wade their way through patriarchy, exploitation, daily physical and sexual abuse to self-obsessed husbands — fierce protectors of their sons, women who provide meals out of nothing and succour from sweat.
Jasoda is a mother and a midwife. She lives in a state named Paar. “‘Beyond’— that’s what the word means, but beyond what? The answer is still beyond. Beyond is the farthest limit of your imagination. Beyond civilisation, may be beyond the universe itself.”
Her husband, Sangram Singh, almost a caricature of the ambitious, exploitative, upper caste village man, is single-mindedly dedicated to worming his way into the local lord’s favour as well as his once magnificent but now rundown palace.
Prince Parbat Singh and his mistress, Raat Rani, are even more sharply drawn than Sangram Singh. They are like characters in frayed monochrome photographs of erstwhile royals who come to life in loud, exaggerated antics with puppeteer Nagarkar whizzing around the strings.
The sketches of pathetic, fading feudalism, the escapades in the palace are curious, entertaining but neither they nor the venal growth of Sangram’s fortunes work as a parallel to Jasoda’s story of struggle.
The promise of the opening chapter of Jasoda is lost as one moves along — there’s something missing, some loops, some stitches, some little knots that could have more effectively completed the design.
Nagarkar’s award-winning Cuckold was simply superb. With the finesse of a master artist, he picked up a character ignored by history, a Rajput prince, the singing queen of Chittor, Meerabai’s husband, and used him as a brush to paint a brilliant miniature showcasing the games of love and betrayal (that gets even more complex when there’s a god involved), strategies of governance and war, palace power struggles, friendships that don’t account for gender or age and battles within the mind.
Jasoda’s first pages held the promise of being an equally brilliant read but then the story gets ragged and the characters don’t get fleshed out with Nagarkar’s usual finesse. Time flows in fits and starts punctuated by Jasoda’s pregnancies — each time, except the last, she kills the daughter and lets the son live.
Perhaps the jumpiness of the story can be attributed to the 20-year gap — Nagarkar wrote the first 70 pages of the book and then abandoned it. He picked up the book again only after 20 years, and then finished it.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first is set in the parched state, Paar, with all the village and feudal dynamics and characters like the old widower Siyaram who is hoarding wood for his own funeral pyre or Savitri, the untouchable, with whom Sangram Singh has regular sex while her husband sits outside the hut and to whose home he carries his own food.
The second part wanders the streets of Mumbai where Jasoda moves with her mother-in-law and sons as most of Paar’s population migrates to the cities to escape drought and hunger. It’s in Mumbai that Jasoda comes into her own, fiercely protective even while sending her sons out to beg, negotiating with pavement mafia bosses, working like a maniac to feed and clothe her family.
The third part sees Jasoda moving back to Paar which is buzzing with the possibility of offshore oil reserves. She sets up a successful chain of restaurants and gives birth to a girl whom she lets live with some persuasion from her eldest son Himmat, who runs through the novel like an observer and conscience-keeper with a fairytale story of his own. The fourth part tries to tie ends together with Jasoda placed firmly in the driver’s seat.
Despite the flicker of disappointment fed by great expectations, Jasoda is still a fine read, packed with innumerable attention-whetting characters like the Parsi gentleman Cawas Batliwala who, in a Mumbai park, decides to take charge of Himmat’s education, and the fascinating Raat Rani, Prince Parbat Singh’s in-residence mistress at the palace.
Raat Rani wakes up at three in the afternoon, spends the next hour in a mini-temple where she has collected gods, goddesses, saints, babas and gurus regardless of which faith they belong to, and then she watches endless serials on TV till 11 pm when she is “ready for a night of frolic and fun.” Sangram Singh’s vicious subjugation of Raat Rani, who puts up a spirited fight in a palace power struggle, is disturbing.
But to get back to Jasoda, what strikes one most is how she changes yet remains unchanged. Does the journey through life, from Paar to Mumbai back to Paar, having the reins of her life in her own hands, emancipate her? Perhaps. Does it change her way of thinking, the way she looks at men and women, at the way the world works? It’s not quite clear.
Jasoda begins stoic and remains so going about the business of living life the best she can. One I-don’t-think-I’ll-forget moment is when, struggling in Mumbai, she hopes the child in her womb is a girl so that she can dispense with it and have one less mouth to feed. Nagarkar says: “Jasoda would find it risible if she found out that I thought of her as heroic. She would correct me and tell me it’s just life with zero options. What choice does one have when there are no choices? All she can do is to improvise every minute of her life.”
Sunrita Sen is a freelance writer...