Time travel is the cornerstone of Trisha Das’s sharp and entertaining novels, in which historical or mythological figures brush against our modern (in some ways) world, and vice versa. Das’s Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas, published in 2016, wasn’t a time-travel story in the conventional sense, but that is for all practical purposes what happens when four of the Mahabharata’s women – residing, somewhat restlessly, in heaven – visit present-day Delhi for a month.
Now, in Das’s new book, the awkwardly titled Kama’s Last Sutra, the theme works in the other direction: a 21st century person negotiates, gawps at, interprets, learns from, and doles out lessons to a culture of a thousand years earlier. While working near the Khajuraho ruins, a young archeologist named Tara is mysteriously sent back to the 11th century, landing in the Chandela kingdom, saving a little girl from being raped by a priest, meeting King Vidyadhar himself, and eventually finding herself in a tricky situation: she knows how Chandela history turned out, and when it looks like events aren’t headed in the right direction, she must decide whether to interfere and make herself a part of the story.
A commendable risk
Given that these are both fast-paced works of popular fiction hinging on a similar concept – old world meets new world – it’s worth reflecting on the differences between them. Having written a Mahabharata novel (something many writers do these days, with varying degrees of success), Das has now made it tougher for herself on two counts. First, most readers will not be as familiar with – or as dramatically invested in – the history of King Vidyadhar and the Chandelas as they are in the Mahabharata (even if what one essentially needs to know is that Vidyadhar managed to stave off the efforts of Mahmud of Ghazni to conquer his fort). There aren’t as many reference points, comforting allusions, or familiar characters to root for.
Second, Ms Draupadi Kuru, despite its title, had four protagonists: Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba and the eternally maternal, guilt-ridden Kunti, trying to help a young orphan named Karan, a reincarnation of the first-born son she had abandoned in the ancient days. The book cut back and forth between their adventures or personal missions, allowing for a dynamic, multi-dimensional narrative. Whereas in the new novel we have a single first-person narrator whom we have to stick with from beginning to end – which means that if either Tara or one of her specific encounters becomes a little boring, the reading experience is dragged down.
It’s a commendable risk, and it mostly works well. Kama’s Last Sutra starts with a few clunky sentences and some redundant information (“I continued to remove the mud around it, using all my training from my four years as an undergrad student of archaeology at Columbia University in New York...”) but even in these initial passages, Das’s knack for the short, sharp observation and the sardonic aside is evident – and these qualities soon begin to define the book.
Looking into the mirror
Much of the fun of Ms Draupadi Kuru was watching the characters deal with things that are strange to them, but so familiar to us that we take them for granted: we see traffic signals, chandeliers, television sets and the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the “palace” for 21st century Indraprastha) through their perspective. With Kama’s Last Sutra, it’s different – we accompany Tara as she moves out of her own space and slowly processes the sights and sounds of her new environment.
There are some nice details: Tara first knows for sure that she is in the distant past when she observes that the sky above her head really is blue, and that the foliage around her “smelled strongly of...foliage. Fresh, damp and heavy – like when you blended a bunch of spinach leaves and opened the blender lid to realise that spinach had a smell after all.” (This reminded me of the protagonist of Stephen King’s 22.11.63 going back to Eisenhower-era America and finding that the foam on his beer was full and creamy.) Now she must go about the business of wearing the appropriate clothes, calculating dates and figuring out geography based on her knowledge of the Khajuraho temples that had survived into her own time.
And she must look hard into the mirror as well. It would be easy for a book like this to present a modern-day character smugly preaching to her predecessors, enlightening them about things like equality and secularism. But it isn’t so simple: Tara isn’t a self-congratulatory young person convinced that her era represents the apotheosis of human civilisation. She is aware of her own privileges, aware as a feminist that she stands on the shoulders of women who fought and won many tiny battles in the past. And she recognises, more than once, that some problems and prejudices don’t go away, no matter how “evolved” people become.
She does come across as omniscient at times – noticing every little thing, such as the expressions on the faces of different people with different agendas during a court gathering – which can feel improbable given her own disoriented situation. But that’s a hard-to-avoid pitfall of this sort of narrative, where the protagonist is required to be a sutradhaar and guide – showing us around – while also being a full-fledged participant.
Humour, sex and history
Of course, this is as much a ghagra-choli-ripper-meets-modern-chick-lit as it is anything else – and so, even amidst philosophising or facing a political crisis, Tara finds the time to ogle the hot king and feel conflicted about her own feelings. It leads to a sort of sex scene where Vidyadhar takes her “orgasm virginity” without touching her; the passage is vivid and intense, but would have been sexier if Tara (who is hardly coy about her language earlier in the story) hadn’t mystifyingly started using “manhood” for “penis” and “sheath” for “vagina”.
The only problem with this book is that the mid-section sags and gets repetitive in its detailing of court politics and the many sorts of intrigues involving ministers, queens and concubines. Some of the wry, irreverent humour of the early chapters yields to earnest exposition. Tara is understandably a little subdued and wary about not getting into serious trouble (even if it means toning down her 21st century feminism) but in the process the book itself becomes a little too sombre. It does pick up, though, as the plot becomes more focused and more oriented toward the encounter with the marauding Ghazni and Tara’s own role in it.
Like many books in this sub-genre – going back to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Kama’s Last Sutra combines wide-eyed humour with a poignant sense of history, the awareness that the land one stands on has been the setting for countless dramas over the centuries involving countless types of people. It is about being, at one and the same time, a progressive who is proud of the freedoms available in the present day, and a nostalgist who feels a restless curiosity, even a yearning for, a bygone time. The tension between these two things flow through and enrich this novel, even when it is essentially concerned with telling an engrossing, fast-paced story.
Kama’s Last Sutra, Trisha Das, HarperCollinsIndia.