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B+ : rich, appealing novel -- though stretched a bit thin with some of its ambitions
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Divya is set in the Indo-Greek state of Madra around the first century BCE, soon after King Milinda (Menander I), a convert to Buddhism, renounced the throne and took his vows as a monk. At this point, Madra was a republic, and Milinda's fundamental shifting of societal structures -- which included his freeing of thousands of slaves -- reverberated in ongoing tensions between what then were the two major power groups, the reactionary Brahmins and a newly empowered entrepreneurial class that now also became influential in local government. Buddhist ideology -- specifically that one's actions, rather than simply birth-right, were determinative -- took on much greater significance. The Brahmins, no longer the sole elite and with the very foundations of their claim to power -- you're born into it, and essentially nothing else counts -- called into question, continued to be upset about the new order, and still hearkened back to the old:
The kingdom belongs to the caste dynasty of Madra, not to the Buddhist dharma-chakra of that Greek, Milinda.In the republic -- no longer a hereditary kingdom -- , some freed slaves have become highly successful and influential, notably Prestha, a former palace slave who became a successful merchant and then confidante of Mithrodus, the president of the republic -- his right hand man. Prestha has a son, Prithusen, whom he had brought up and educated just like the sons of the older noble families were -- though, since he was not a Brahmin, he remained something of an outsider. A talented fighter, Prithusen applied for a commission in the army -- a position he was well-qualified for and deserved. But the governing council was slow to take up his case, with the situation then coming to a head when Prithusen got into a conflict with a young Brahmin, Rudradhir, son of the Chairman of the Republican Council, and took his case to the judiciary:
If the law-court grants him the same rights and privileges as are enjoyed by the high-caste members of the nobility, then he automatically becomes entitled to a commission in the army. And if the Council grants him the right of a commissioned rank in the army he becomes automatically entitled to the rights and privileges of the high-caste nobility.Because of the far-reaching consequence, the authorities have been trying to avoid the issue:
That is why the Chairman of the Republican Council has been shelving the issue all along in the Council. The question before the law-courts is a challenge to the basic structure of society.When the case is finally decided, it sends shockwaves through the republic -- and especially the Brahmin-class: "a thousand days' banishment for insulting the son of a slave" seems grossly unfair to a class that believe themselves to be better and more deserving than any other. It suggests a huge step forward for the country -- but the Brahmins also see it as an opportunity, a step too far that will allow for the return to the good old days (when they ran the show, and were above this sort of reproach): "A Brahmin has been banished, while a Sutra has been honored -- this itself will prove to be the instrument of the emancipation of Madra", one young Brahmin predicts.
With the nation soon threatened by forces abroad, the army has to be built up again, and Prithusen is an obvious choice to lead the way. He proves adept, and also successfully leads the troops -- while the Brahmins conspire to take advantage of the unsettled state of things around Madra, and consider how to support those outside forces who might help bring about the return of the strict caste-system they long for.
The conflict between Prithusen and Rudradhir involves the beautiful young dancer, Divya -- the high-born great-granddaughter of yet another important official, the Chief Justice of the Republic, Dev Sharma. She is the apple of his eye -- but the fact that these two young men are essentially vying for her complicates his own position as judge. Divya is drawn to Prithusen, and frustrated by the barriers standing between them, political and social; nevertheless, they are able to begin a relationship of sorts. Prithusen is deeply in love with Divya as well, but his father Prestha is a realist who wants to see his son attain greater heights and knows that requires a more strategic marriage -- specifically, to Seero, the granddaughter of the aged Mithrodus. Prestha reminds his son:
Just think, by marrying the granddaughter of the Greek President, you will, without any effort and without any opposition, become one of the high-born nobles; but by marrying the great-granddaughter of Dev Sharma, even if the liberal Dev Sharma does not oppose it, you will turn the entire Brahmin clan against yourself.Of course, Prithusen already has a pretty big target on his back as far as the Brahmins go, but dad has a point. But Prithusen longs for Divya -- and Divya can think of no one else but him. And, before he goes into battle:
She was ready to sacrifice her family, her social position, her very being for his sake.When he returns from battle, successful but injured, matters get more complicated. It is Seero who nurses him to health, while Divya is kept at bay. And Divya is pregnant with his child .....
Unable to communicate properly with him, Divya eventually comes to lose all hope and she flees, abandoning her former life and accepting what comes her way, indifferent to her fate. Others take advantage of her, but even though escape would often be fairly easy, she can't bring herself to bother:
Divya knew that she had only to cry out in protest and she would be free, free from the clutches of the slave-trader, free from bondage. But then, where would she go ? Was there anywhere that she would be truly free ? Where would she find shelter and security ?When she does try to escape one situation, she is horrified to find that, as a woman, there is almost no place for her to turn. Even the Buddhist monks turn her away: "the Monastic Order cannot grant shelter to a woman without the approval of her guardian". And the only women considered free are ... prostitutes.
In her desperation, Divya even prepares to go down that path but events conspire against her; nevertheless, she winds up as a courtesan-dancer -- maintaining some autonomy (she does not give herself to any men, though many woo her) but considered lowly by society. Her transformation extends also to her name: Divya becomes Dara and then Anshumala.
She is a very talented dancer, and attracts much attention -- yet there's also something missing:
Rumours spread in the town, that she was no courtesan but a mere performing doll; that she was more like a marionette who went through the motions of ritual dances before the image of a god than a real dancer; that her alluring smiles and bewitching glances were mere formal gestures of art and carried no genuine feeling for anyone. She had nothing inside her and, therefore, she could give out nothing. She was devoid of that warmth which is the essential quality of a desirable woman. She was only a jointed puppet whose strings were pulled by Ratnaprabha.Her fame nevertheless spreads, and her identity can not be hidden (not that she tries too hard). Visitors from Madra recognize her, and eventually she returns to her homeland -- if not the fold. Ultimately, Rudradhir and Prithusen both make their pitches for her again -- though by that time Prithusen's is of a rather different kind than what she had originally longed for, as he undergoes quite the transformation (after a miserable marriage with Seero). Divya does make her choice, to go yet another new way, accepting yet another role -- but disappointing her two prominent suitors.
The shifting situation in Madra recedes into the background for much of the novel, as the narrative switches from the struggle for power and what system should be dominant in the republic to long following Divya's much more personal struggle abroad. However, it remains an interesting background part of the plot, coming to the fore again, with first Prithusen rising to power, on his merits, and then Rudradhir returning after his more than six years in exile and managing the rëestablishment of the rigid caste system.
Beyond that, the ideological-philosophical questions, of how to live one's life -- especially whether to worry about an after-life -- are nicely woven into the story, from Divya's quest for a concept of 'freedom' to Prithusen's ultimate path (including then also how he makes peace with Rudradhir), and, especially, in the figure of the wandering philosophical Marish, who proves to be a more significant figure in the story than initially suggested. It is Marish who counsels not to worry about what might come after death:
If you wish to indulge yourself in the pleasures of life, then do so while you still have the means. There is nothing to be gained by depriving yourself. The next world is only a figment of the imagination. No one has ever seen it. The person who assures you about its existence is only repeating what others have told him, and those others too have been doing the same.The tragic-romantic figure of Divya can be frustrating at times, but her struggles within the constraints of these societies -- terribly rigid in their various variations -- are plausible enough. In particular, Yashpal captures well how she tries to deal with all her tragedy, and how it is reflected in her actions and bearing, including her beautiful but in some ways empty dancing. As she explains:
"For me there is no other way to suppress and to destroy my inner self."Divya is a moving and powerful story, though Yashpal struggles some in moving between Divya's very personal fate and ordeal and the broader social and political dynamics and conflicts. Parts recede too far into the background, for too long -- the older generation back in Madra, while Divya is absent, for example, with Divya's great-grandfather deeply troubled by her disappearance (and wondering: "Whose fault was it that she went away ? Mine ? Yours ? Our society with its rules ...") but then basically simply forgotten. But Yashpal nicely ties up the personal journeys of the main characters, including Rudradhir and Prithusen's. As to the return to the ridiculous caste system that comes to Madra, it's accepted matter-of-factly; Yashpal doesn't judge -- though it's clear he sees it as a terrible step back, after the enlightened rule in the republic (even as that never got anywhere near as class-less as one might have hoped).
There are some rough bits and transitions here, but overall Divya certainly impresses -- and it's a thoroughly engaging read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2020
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Hindi-writing author Yashpal (यशपाल) lived 1903 to 1976.
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