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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review of Yashpal’s Divya in today’s New Indian Express

First published in The New Indian Express. Official weblink is here.

When it was first published in 1945, Yashpal’s novel Divya created a furore because of its unconventional portrayal of women and their quest for independence. Although it is tame enough for our times, the book remains enigmatic as ever since it sets out by envisioning the prostitute as a liberated woman. Set in a time-period when the clash between Buddhism and Brahminism was at its peak, the novel probes the roots of slavery and the plight of women, thus providing insight into the personal and political nature of bondage.

Born in a Brahmin family, the enchanting Divya is the great-granddaughter of the Chief Justice of the Republic of Madra. She falls in love with Prithusen, the son of a former slave, who is also the best swordsman in the kingdom. As in works of fiction (and unlike in almost all of real life), pregnancy follows a single night of love-making, and Divya hides the signs of a new life growing inside her as she awaits the return of Prithusen. He emerges successful in the war, and in warding off the Brahmins who seek to annex the Sagal territory, but spurns Divya on the advice of his father who is keen to get him married to Seero, granddaughter of the President of the Republic, since that would ensure him a better place in the echelons of power.

Her pregnancy, which should have possibly been an occasion for celebration becomes the cause for censure, and Divya leaves the kingdom. Unable to come to terms with that shame, her great-grandfather dies. Sold to a slave trader, she becomes a wet-nurse, and later, flees in order to join the monastic order, but they refuse to allow her since she does not have a father, husband, son or master who can grant her permission. Saved by the generous courtesan Devi Ratnapraba, she’s rescued from slavery of one kind, and inducted into slavery of another.

In her new avatar as the dancer Anshumala, her fame is unparalleled. However, she also realises that merely by becoming the mistress of her own body, a woman cannot become the mistress of her destiny. She returns to Sagal on the invitation of her former guru Devi Mallika, but is once again ostracised by caste society. Rudhradhir, the Brahmin who has now taken over the kingdom asks her to be his wife, arguing that a high-born girl can never be the state’s chief courtesan. Divya turns down his offer. Prithusen, now a Bhikku offers to take her into the monastic order, but she refuses to enter it too, and the novel ends in a conventional manner.

This trajectory of a woman’s life is used to explore the social maladies prevalent in India at that time. As a revolutionary freedom fighter, Yashpal subtly and shrewdly argues for the necessity for transcending caste divisions and empowering women. Even though it is envisaged for personal purposes, this urgent yearning for an egalitarian society by one sensual, spirited woman enables Divya to assume a realness which is neither maudlin or superficial. Such a nuanced construction renders the novel eminently readable.

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