An important trend in Indian-English writing, post-millennium, has been the reincarnation of mythology as bestsellers, thanks to writers like Devdutt Pattanaik (who is also an illustrator) and Amish. There have been retellings by other gifted writers of fiction as well: Chitra Banerjee Divakurani’s The Palace of Illusions: A Novel (2008) and The Forest of Enchantments (2019) immediately come to mind. However, none of them featured Ahalya as a protagonist. Enter Koral Dasgupta.

She had acknowledged her immense debt to Pattanaik for her interest in mythology in one of her previous novels, Rasia (2017). In that novel (somewhat reminiscent of the life and art of Raja and Radha Reddy), a Bharatnatyam dancer-couple are forced to realign their personal and professional lives when a gifted student enters their world. At one point, that student gives a long exposition on Durga and Kali as she prepares their dance troupe for a new mythological production. It was but one step for the author from making mythology a part of the story to making it the story itself: she took that step with Ahalya.

Breaking away

In her note to readers, Dasgupta elaborates on the distinction that is traditionally made between the Panch Kanya – Ahalya, Kunti, Draupadi, Mandodari and Tara – and the Five Satis – Sita, Sati, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati – adding that she herself thinks of the categories differently. This is based on a different definition of the word “sati” – one that doesn’t emphasise chastity, but the “personal truth of the women for which they are answerable only to themselves, irrespective of external judgements or popular interpretations”.

The story of Ahalya is essentially a story of seduction. Seduction stories in myths, as is well known, often lead to dangerous consequences. So it is with Ahalya. Created by Brahma as an impossibly beautiful woman, she was gifted to the sage Gautama as wife. But Indra, enamoured of her beauty, seduced her in the guise of her husband. She saw through his deception, but enjoyed the encounter.

An enraged Gautama punished his wife’s infidelity by turning her into stone, telling her she would be redeemed only by Rama (an avatar of Lord Vishnu). That is what happens: Rama brings her back to life while passing through Gautama’s ashram, on his way to Mithila, with Lakshmana and their guru Vishwamitra.

There are several versions of this story, with Ahalya’s guilt seen in varying degrees. However, all of them agree that it is Rama who liberates her from her curse.

Inside a marriage

In a most intriguing retelling, Dasgupta’s narrative turns the seduction story on its head, making Ahalya the seducer instead of the seduced. We do not see her being lured by the most powerful of gods, but witness her seduction of her husband. Seduction is thus established not as exclusive to a forbidden relationship, but as part and parcel of a legitimate, socially accepted bond.

It is, in fact, made to be the essential road to love and understanding between this couple – one through which Gautam gradually evolves “from a hermit to a husband”. What this process entails for both Ahalya and Gautam takes up the bulk of the narrative. There are moments in it that stand out, like this passage that dramatises something elusive: sexual attraction.

“I don’t know when and how I too started making an instinctive effort to drift closer to the sage. […] I stayed awake till late in the evenings watching Gautam write. […] On the pale barks peeled out fresh from the tree trunks he wrote with a quill, with such concentration that his soul rested where his nib touched the brittle wood pulp. Narrow and small, his writing was conservative. He tried to fit in as many of his thoughts on a single pulp, perhaps to avoid wastage.

I lay quietly in the darkness of the hut as Gautam prepared his voracious script, oblivious of the pair of eyes that watched his every move. A little lamp flickered before him. His ribs rose and fell in the silent excitement of creation. He looked happily possessed within the realms of his own world. Bellows of elephants and footsteps of wild boars not too far away posed no threat to the grip on the quill. The bony wrist, stable on the willow plank acting as his writing desk, made no attempts to adjust the hair flowing on his back. The night breeze passed through his mane and blew unbarred to touch me. It carried with it the eloquent smell of his body. Why did it send shivers down my spine? The thought made me sit up abruptly and I could not sleep for the rest of the night.”

This is an elaborate description in a novel that is otherwise minimalist in tone and style, with a focus on the elemental aspect of desire and the importance of its fulfilment in forging one’s self.

The novel is very interestingly woven around four of Ahalya’s relationships – with Brahma, her creator; with the Mist, her mother; with Mandakini, the river; and, of course, with Gautam, her husband. While her relationship with Gautam is the focus of the narrative, the three others enable, support and nourish it, standing in for a young woman’s archetypal relationships with her father, mother and sister/friend.

Thus, the father is a figure of authority, and the friend is a confidante, but the bond with the mother is the strongest – at once tender and complex. The Mist is invested with a melancholy that is the signature tune of motherhood: of loving and understanding one’s child, but unable to let go of the attachment. She also plays the inevitable role of mentor – guiding, persuading, and warning Ahalya, by turns, this becoming a crucial part of her daughter’s journey of self-discovery.

Ahalya: The Sati Series

Ahalya: The Sati Series, Koral Dasgupta, Pan.