Book review

In ‘Jasoda’, Kiran Nagarkar succeeds in giving us an extraordinary heroine in the form of Everywoman

The book suffers from the occasional narrative dissonance but reaffirms why Nagarkar is one of our best contemporary novelists.

In Kiran Nagarkar’s new book, the eponymous Jasoda is an (extra)ordinary woman living an (extra)ordinary life in a nondescript desert village, as most Indian women do in the hinterlands. A life of courage and determination, as author Kiran Nagarkar’s points out. A life with no choices, a life that needs improvisation “every minute”.

An everyday heroine

Jasoda keeps her family alive in the barren village of Kantagiri – where it rained so long ago that she has to explain to her children what rain is – by walking several kilometres, twice a week, balancing brass vessels on her head, uncaring about the desert heat or deadly sandstorms, to check on the water tanker. She is, after all, a hero.

As Nagarkar writes in the afterword to the book, “Take any of the great epics, it’s the men like Ulysses, Arjun, Ram, Hector, Achilles who are the heroes. In quotidian life, it’s very often the women who are epic heroines.”

Jasoda organises lentils and flour for her family on that old promise to the grocer of clearing her debt soon, quickly looking away when he points to his crotch. She takes care of her ailing mother-in-law and is the dutiful wife to her abusive and callous husband, Chhote Huzoor Sangram Singh, whose sole purpose in life is to serve and ingratiate himself with Prince Parbat Singh.

When the heavens don’t send rain and the route of water is diverted after a marital deal goes wrong at “the palace”, all of parched Kantagiri runs low on hope and starts to escape. When there are just a few families left, Jasoda, too, decides to leave the village with her three sons Himmat, Pawan and Sameer, and her sick mother-in-law.

In Mumbai, her bad times are far from over, but in the city, she manages to take charge of her life and her body. Jasoda sends her three sons to beg at the metropolis’ busy traffic signals, while she goes from one house to another, hoping to get hired as a domestic help. Mumbai’s practical residents, however, see little use of a woman with a protruding belly, a mark of the only responsibility that her husband took seriously – procreation.

Fortunately, Jasoda’s days as a baby-producing machine are over in Mumbai. But it is not easy for readers to forget accounts of the times she pushed them out in the most extraordinary circumstances – in a field, halfway up the staircase, in between packing her husband’s tiffin and holding up the half-cracked mirror for him to check his twirled moustache.

Detail-rich characters

Nagarkar’s book is split into four parts. Part one – the most beautifully crafted – is about life in Kantagiri, where the wind speaks to little Himmat, Jasoda’s eldest and most able son. The second part tells Jasoda’s story in Mumbai, where life is far from easy but the city gives her money and offers a comforting view of the city. The third and fourth parts are about her return to Kantagiri.

After spending seven years in Mumbai, Jasoda hears stories about the gods smiling on Kantagiri once again. She also has pangs of guilt, worrying about her husband’s well-being. Upon her return, however, she discovers that while she was away, Chhote Huzoor became Prince Sangram Singh. But her old home does not hold her anymore and Jasoda hits the road again, albeit as a far more confident woman this time.

Nagarkar’s characters are well-sketched. If Jasoda is Everywoman, Parbat Singh – with his love for lording over his woman – is Everyman. The story of Siyaram, Jasoda’s neighbour, who collects firewood for his pyre and guards it with extra doors, as he is not sure if his children will come for his funeral – is heart-wrenching.

It is difficult to miss the wry humour that permeates the novel. At one point in the story, Jasoda helps with a birth in the hope to barter for food. She delivers a girl and promptly and pointedly asks: “Is there anything else you want me to do?” Jasoda is a heroine, yes, but very much a victim of the milieu she inhabits, one that does not approve of a girl child.

Nagarkar’s eye for detail lets the reader into a world which most urban women know little about. The gross objectification of women, the way men think sex, the way men view women’s anatomies before choosing them as wives are all familiar, but the quotidian nature of it all raises goosebumps.

Muddled narrative

There are a few problems that need fixing in the book. Nagarkar, who wrote Jasoda with a gap of twenty years, is aware of the issues a writer can face if he sits with a character in his head for so long.

“I can assure anyone who is 966 years old that I can, within a day or two, work miracles and make her/him younger by more than nine hundred and odd years,” he writes in the acknowledgments section, emphasising that he was able to successfully fix the problem.

Readers, however, might not agree. One has to keep guessing the ages of several characters and details like the age gap between her eldest Himmat and the youngest Kishen. Several lives in the novel end abruptly and several characters, such as Savitri, the untouchable woman whom Sangram Singh sexually abused, just go missing. Heera, the little girl, whom Himmat doted over, similarly disappears.

Despite its flaws, it would be a sin not to read Jasoda. Nagarkar, rightly counted among India’s best writers, lets readers into the dirty secrets of Shining India, showcasing the lives of (extra)ordinary women who show tremendous grace and emerge winners under tremendous pressure and hardship.

Jasoda, Kiran Nagarkar, HarperCollins India.

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