Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas is one of the rare modern Indian classics that has been reimagined anew by every generation when they realise love can go wrong in ways more than one. The novel was widely successful when it was published in Bengali in 1917. It has since been translated into English and other Indian languages. It has also been adapted to the big screen as many as 20 times in several Indian languages.
Chattopadhyay could never have guessed that his tale of three unhappy lovers would become the creative mother lode of almost all doomed love stories in India. Its impact has been so pervasive, “Devdas” is liberally used as a descriptor. Think about all the times when your friend was being mopey after a breakup and relying a bit too much on alcohol to take her out of the dumps and you exclaimed: “Don’t be such a Devdas, ya!” As a proper noun, “Devdas” alerts the audience that the love story they witnessing will end in death and destruction.
Even though a younger generation’s imagination of Chattopadhyay’s novel has been greatly influenced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 blockbuster film of the same name, we know that despite the glamour of the movie and its dishy stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit Nene, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), Devdas is a tale of terrible heartbreaks, alcoholism, and the trampling of women’s agency. And yet…we are eternally enthralled by the tale and its three protagonists. Devdas is an eternal spring that shows no signs of drying up.
Not Devdas, Not Paro, Not Chandramukhi
Aayush Gupta, in his cleverly titled 155-page novel My Name Is Not Devdas, revisits/reimagines/retells Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s masterpiece 115 years later. The protagonists are Not Devdas, Not Paro, and Not Chandramukhi. Each character gets to tell their own story, or at least their version of it. At one point in the novel Paro (I am dropping the “Not”) says, “I am who I am regardless of where or what I am.” Gupta’s mission is hidden in this one line – Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi are not perfect but this is their story. You might be repulsed by it, you might savour it…either way, this is what happened and nothing and no one can undo it. Everything is fair in love, war, and college campuses.
Seventeen-year-old Devdas is a student at Delhi University. His father was a professor at Jadavpur University, Kolkata till he was charged with sexual misconduct by a female student. A Marxist, feminist, and an erudite thinker, Devdas has picked up all these wonderful qualities from his father. Devdas’s mother is dead to him – after all, that’s a fitting treatment to any woman who dares to run away with the local cable guy.
It is the father, son, and their misery – the holy trinity of patriarchy – against the world. Despite the source of said misery being a woman, the noble men have made it their life’s mission to be good to women. To rescue them and give them a loving home. And if needs be, become the very embodiment of love and support that was missing from their lives before they encountered the virtuous duo.
Thanks to the elite campuses of Delhi University, Devdas knows that the quickest way to a woman’s heart is by being “woke.” Gupta’s portrayal of a slam poet, Marxist-ideology spewing, feminist woke-boy Devdas delighted me. As a former student of the aforementioned university in Kolkata where such men can be found aplenty, I knew exactly how pretentious and insufferable these Devdases tend to be.
Interestingly, Devdas knows it too. “I was sensitive, yes. Woke, hell yes. To gender issues, social stigmas, caste biases, everything minority. The downtrodden needed a voice, and my voice was silky smooth. Especially when I was reciting poetry.” He has also figured out that Leftist ideology is somewhat of an aphrodisiac. He says smugly, “There’s just something deeply irresistible about a woke guy.” There we go! If you are getting war flashbacks about “woke” male “feminists” who have made your life hell behind the closed doors of a relationship and in college quadrangles, you know exactly what Gupta’s Devdas might look and sound like.
Enter Paro: Devdas’s father lovingly adopted girl from an impoverished Haryanvi family. She is in love with Devdas. But unlike the Paro of Chattopadhyay’s novel, she is feisty and will not stop until she has had her way. She admits as a matter of fact that Devdas was the reason she had “food in her belly, jealousy in her bones, and love in her heart”. She never asked to be Devdas’s sister – why should an honourary title come in the way of desire? Paro bumps into Chandramukhi following a misadventure outside the women’s hostel of Jamia Millia Islamia University. A Kashmiri, Chandramukhi takes to sex work to fend for herself in the metropolis of Delhi.
The hypocrisies of the ‘woke’
In the meantime, Devdas gets steadily involved in the murky politics of recent times – from protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act to pride parades, he is an active participant in the institution of democracy. Devdas is “woke” but also he knows how to save his skin when the state comes for “anti-nationals” like him on Delhi campuses. When he is asked about the sacred thread that Brahmins wear (Devdas, we learn, is Brahmin) he readily agrees to belong to the upper caste. A piece of cotton thread could save his life and he knows as much. A chameleon and an opportunist, Devdas knows that accepting the thread was a “sacrilege” in his old world and not accepting it would be “suicide” in the new one. The world rotates on its axis and Devdas on his own selfish gains.
Accepting his Brahmin identity also has its advantages. When Paro confesses her love for him, Devdas automatically assumes she will one day propose marriage. Devdas can’t get caught up in such trivialities. He has big ideologies to live up to. He tells Paro, who is also Brahmin, “We can’t propagate the Brahminical superiority myth. Upper-castes have a duty towards subversion. We must marry into other, underprivileged...” Yet another example of how hyper-aware men often avoid accountability in personal relationships by citing ideological responsibilities.
Rejected by Devdas, Paro gives her hand in marriage to a man whom she has no reason to not marry. Unable to stand Paro’s brazenness and still tormented by the fact that his mother is absconding, Devdas decides to show Paro her rightful place in the sexual pecking order. Paro labels him a “possessive communist.” Her tongue-in-cheek remark is met with Devdas’s maniacal thirst for revenge – a poem he composes, concludes with a threat: “And unlike my whore mother, she won’t fly away…”
The feminist saviour Devdas is replaced by an ordinary thug who seeks vengeance on women in the most unimaginative way possible. The angst that was palpable thus far gives way to the genuine terror that all women are familiar with. Hereafter, the plot hurtles towards a climax – where foster relationships, lofty ideologies, and feigned righteousness are torn apart. The anger is replaced by despair as death bares its claws at Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi in turns. Only two will make it out alive. Who will they be? Gupta invites us to make out bets.
In My Name Is Not Devdas, Devdas could be any of the young men whom you bump into at protest rallies and slam poetry recitals. The possibility of one of them ruining your life permanently is as terrifying as it is real.
Disturbing and gruesome, My Name Is Not Devdas unmasks the hypocritical guardians of the Left-Liberal camp. We are forced us to ask ourselves if we are one of them – university-educated crusaders who exploit social and political afflictions for sinister personal gain. Full of smarts and angst, Gupta’s retelling featuring a determined Haryanvi girl, a self-assured sex worker, and a wasted potential of a young man burns bright in the long and overcrowded list of creative works inspired by the original.
My Name Is Not Devdas, Aayush Gupta, HarperCollins India.