I was searching for women philosophers in India. It had become a sort of obsession with me. Whenever I met anyone who had anything to do with philosophy or Indian history, I asked them, “Do you know of any great Indian women philosophers?” I often got the same reply, “Yes, Meerabai!”
Sometimes the name Maitreyi or Gargi would come up. Other people working with the Mahabharata often mentioned Sulabha. But these were just names. I didn’t want just names, I wanted to know them. Who were these women, what did they think about, where did their work disappear? Why were they missing from the lists of texts and commentaries? I also went down the rabbit hole of the internet, sifting through both useless and useful information. An image search yielded a picture of a woman carved on a flat stone. The website informed me that this was a memorial to a woman scholar, whose parents were acknowledged, and she might have been unmarried.
There was more information on this relief, but my attention was drawn to the topknot and the woman’s face. The carving had weathered down, so her features were not visible. I stared at the text that she was holding in her hand. According to the description on the web page, it was a phrase, “Shri Har…Siddhi.” Her finger was concealing the last letter of the second word such that only “Har” was visible. The text could be either Vaishnava or Shaiva depending on the hidden letter: Hari, which was a name for Vishnu, or Hara, the name of Shiva.
I thought that was extremely smart and clever. I was still staring at the image when a name echoed in my head: “Sharvay.” It boomed so loud that I glanced around to see if anyone had said this aloud. What kind of a name was Sharvay? The inscription at the bottom of the stone mentioned the name “Savinirmadi”. Who was this Sharvay? I had not heard of anyone being called by a short name like that. To my South Indian mind, it seemed like a North Indian pet name, like Babli, or Pinky. Was it a shortened form of Sharvari, the word that meant “night” in Sanskrit? Was Sharvay perhaps one of the many names of the Goddess Durga? I wanted to learn more about this name and the statue.
I then found out to my surprise that the statue was in the university gardens close to where I lived. Only a few hours’ drive through the crazy traffic of my city. In a few moments, I had pulled on a jacket and a helmet and kicked my old step-up motorbike to life. I was off to the university on the outskirts of Bangalore. After a long drive and much enquiry, I was standing in front of that relief. The stone was very ordinary, small, and seemed somehow dull in real life. In my imagination, the internet image had looked grander. There were no guards around, so I quickly touched the stone and felt a kind of shock. A buzz of energy flowed through me.
“Static?” I thought to myself. “It must be due to my handbag touching my elbow in that spot. I reached for the statue again and nothing happened. I rubbed the surface of the stone and then closed my eyes and ran my hands over the figure of the woman scholar. It felt warm to the touch. “Must have been warmed by the sun,” I thought. The sculptor had carved a basic relief and if it were not for the long inscription below the carving in old Kannada, people might have thought that this woman was Saraswati – an image of the goddess of learning. It had been discovered in a field. I thought of where the stone carving had been found, and sighed. I knew that images of goddesses do not lie around unattended in fields. Nor do images of men who have done heroic acts of writing or fighting cattle thieves or women who were thrown on funeral pyres. But statues of women scholars lie around till they are rescued and installed in a university. After clicking some photographs for my personal blog project on women scholars, I started back home.
The wind through my helmet continued to whisper, “Sharvay, Sharvay, Sharvay.” After a long ride again through the traffic, I reached my house, and after dinner, I went to bed. But I did not sleep, I dreamt. I saw Sharvay’s story in my dreams, vividly. I saw a life of an extraordinary woman unfold before my closed eyes. A small girl with a large spittoon bonded as a servant to a haughty princess. I saw a child wanting to ask questions. I saw a life that was not my own, yet I knew all about it. I felt the taste of coal in my mouth and smelt the fresh air of an older India. I heard people talk in Sanskrit, and other languages like Prakrit and even Kannada, in my dream.
For several days afterwards, as my head touched my pillow, I was transported to a dream world that felt entirely real to my senses. I woke refreshed every day. I took hold of pen and paper and wrote out the first few chapters of a dream biography that I had watched like a movie serialised in my dreams. Not just an imagined story but a perceived story that had taken hold of my senses. The details were amazing. I wondered if I was having a moment of epiphany, causing all these weird reactions psychologically. After all, I had found a commoner who was a woman philosopher and found a name to add to the list. Was it a form of exuberance and an active imagination that was causing these dreams?
When I talked about this to my close friends, a few of them remarked: “Is it your past life? It could be, you know!” But some intuition told me that this was too much of a coincidence. It could not be so simply explained. The people around me were trying to answer the question “why”, not “how”. That was something Sharvay had said to someone in my dreams. As I followed Sharvay’s teaching and thoughts I began to ask, did I dream of her? Every day I poured out the story into a notebook in longhand with an ink pen. I did not know what was going to happen; I eagerly waited to rush back to my bedroom to sleep every night, so I could spend time with Sharvay in her world.
On the days I didn’t dream, I was irritable. The days I dreamt about her, I was happy and went around reading pages of my story to anybody who would listen. Inevitably, after talking to my friends and colleagues, I thought that if my dreams were fictional inspiration, I might be able to predict how the story would end. I could invent the story along stereotypical lines; Sharvay could marry a prince, Avantika suffer for her indulgences and Karmani could be killed in a freak accident. That’s how my imagination would have worked. But this was not a story that I could inscribe with my will.
Avantika married the great king, not Sharvay. Karmani, whose parentage was certain, married a guard in the royal palace and shared her first tambulum with him, spiced with passion. And Sharvay? She also had an extraordinary life, but not the life I would have loved to give her, at least in fiction. This is Sharvay’s story as she lived it. It is also the mythical story of a woman philosopher, an imagined life of absences and historical untruths. Where the abnormal happens. Such untruths that may one day see the light of truth, not unlike Sharvay’s glittering eyes.
Excerpted with permission from Sharvya: A Novel, Mansi, Speaking Tiger Books.