A World Elsewhere
Indiana, USA. iUniverse, Bloomington. 2015
ISBN: 978 1 4917 4364 5
Pages- 360. Price- $19.95
The Burden and Promise of Freedom
Shanta Acharya has written a moving first novel, at once enchanting, exotic, and at times searing; a coming-of-age-tale of a gifted young woman in the India of the 1960s and 1970s, a social critique, and an unrelenting feminist look at abuse, at once realistic and touched by the mythic, all rolled into one. This is a major extension of Acharya’s oeuvre, having already made her mark as a poet and, unusually, an economist.
The earlier part has the enchantment and myth, as Asha is born after an unusually long pregnancy, to join her brother Vikram in her Brahmin family in Orissa, India. When she is taken newborn from the hospital, a crowd of unexpected onlookers have gathered as if to honour a miracle child to the puzzlement of her mother, Karuna, and her father, Aditya, well- educated and a teacher, as well as and their extended family.
Asha’s is a happy childhood: her tears will come later, as Acharya lets drop early on... To Acharya’s credit she retains the Indian terms for the festivities, rites, and holidays that mark Asha’s family life, or give the way individual members of the family think of themselves or their roles. So, it is an unusual, but welcome, addition to find a glossary of these terms appended to the novel.
Of course one man’s exotic is another’s every day, and while Indian readers will appreciate the richness of the evocation of Asha’s family life, we will find the setting in Orissa and the profusion of Indian terms and behaviours touched by the exotic and romantic, which is entirely in keeping with Asha’s myth-touched birth. Yet a shadow spreads steadily in this idyll, the inequality of the sexes, with Asha increasingly unhappy to be secondary because of her sex to her brother, no matter what signs of character or brilliance she shows.
Acharya handles Asha’s growing disenchantment deftly, as she matures; until, as a young woman, she rebels. She won’t accept the role of her mother, loved but accepting a depreciated status, and refuses to let her parents arrange a marriage for her: Asha insists on continuing her education, and chooses a fellow student, Anand, for her husband over their objections. Vikram, however, bows to such a traditional arrangement.
Anand at first seems a realistic choice, someone who shares Asha’s love of books and education and who appreciates her free spirit. But he soon betrays an inferiority both socially, which Asha had been prepared to ignore, and intellectually, proving both deceitful and manipulative, as his father and sister too prove to be, while his mother escapes for solace from her family to the temple… Swiftly, Asha’s marriage degenerates into unhappiness, and then into something far worse, abuse.
This allows Acharya to weave a number of strands together in the heart of the novel. First, as Asha’s failing marriage moves from disenchantment to an abuse ever more physical and violent, Acharya is able to explore the all too common situation of abused women familiar in our own as well as in Indian society. Asha not only tolerates her increasing suffering, she returns to her abuser after a brief escape, a pattern seen all-too-often with abused women everywhere. Asha cannot do with, or without, the hand that strikes. The fatal flaws that lead a woman to begin, and then to continue in an abusive situation, are portrayed with a power that sears the reader as well as Asha, as she struggles to understand her predicament.
This alone would give the story an immediacy and universal relevance, for Asha loses herself, her perspective, and her sense of freedom and volition in her immediate circumstances, as Anand’s abusiveness and her state of shock blot out other alternatives. Ironically, as an added twist, Acharya is able to place Asha as a ‘good’ Indian woman, after all, one who endures what her husband dishes out, the social critique embodied in Asha’s self-defeating behaviour and Anand’s brutality only too apparent.
But there is a larger strand here that Acharya explores that raises the novel to an altogether higher plane, for through Asha’s choices Acharya is able to explore the terrible price of freedom. Asha continues in her doomed relationship in part to prove her own choices can succeed. Demanding and asserting personal freedom in the face of tradition has the consequence that one must bear the results of those choices too, with no refuge available. Such a person is on her own. Worse, if nothing in her experience prepares Asha for such treatment, as a free choice, nothing in the tradition she rebels against offers her a refuge. She has only herself.
We are here in the realm of Camus, if with a very different result. Acharya’s character doesn’t break from her experience, become alienated, or find her world ‘absurd’ as well as cruel, as an existential character might: neither does she surrender. Asha finds a way out, borne of her strength of character and intelligence. She breaks with Anand and goes home. She sends out applications to universities outside India, and finds herself given a new opportunity at life with a fellowship to Oxford University.
In the interlude between breaking with Anand and leaving for Oxford she lives at home, if not entirely welcome, which lets Acharya round out the novel with a glance at both mother-son and the extended marital relations of Karuna and Aditya. Vikram, who has married traditionally, is unhappy in his marriage, while Karuna, facing the loss of the son she dotes on who must go abroad too, at last rebels against her traditional, subservient role. A way back together is found for Karuna and Aditya: for Asha, there is no going back.
She leaves for an uncertain future certain only she has the strength to make her world elsewhere, accept the consequences of her choices, and bear the loneliness of her freedom as the price for being herself, and anyone’s equal.