Jasoda by Kiran Nagarkar
Published by: Harper Collins India
Rating: 4/5 stars
Paar—’mirage’ country, where it is often impossible to draw the line between reality and illusion—has been suffering from a decade-long drought. Jasoda is one of the last to leave this ‘arse-end of the world’ with her children and mother-in-law. Since her husband claims he has important work to do for the local prince, Jasoda must make the journey to the city by the sea on her own. Meanwhile, after years of anonymity, Paar seems poised to take off. Will Jasoda return home with her children? Or stay in the city that’s become home for her children? It’s taken for granted that epic journeys and epics were possible only during the time of the Mahabharata, the Odyssey, or the Iliad. Even more to the point, the heroes of the epics had to, perforce, be men. The eponymous Jasoda of the novel is about to prove how wrong the assumptions are.
Kiran Nagarkar’s trenchant narrative traces the journey of a woman of steely resolve and gumption, making her way through an India that is patriarchal, feudal, seldom in the news, and weighed down by dehumanizing poverty.
About the author: One of India’s most critically acclaimed writers, Kiran Nigarkar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his ‘Cuckold’ in 2001. Nagarkar received the Order of the Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. One of the sharpest critics of India’s socio political scenario, Kiran Nagarkar also writes in Marathi.
The prologue of Kiran Nagarkar’s Jasoda lets readers on into a bit of what might just say ahead in the rest of the book: there is Jasoda hard at work in a field with her eldest son Himmat and there’s a baby on the way. It is a tough birth that she manages alone, at the end of which she kills the baby because it is a girl. There! That must have got your attention! It got mine. It took me a day to recover from the prologue and then I read the entire book in one sitting.
The book has four parts: part one is set in Kantagiri ruled by Prince Parbat Singh who may have likely killed his older twin brother to ascend the ‘throne’ in a post privy purse India wherein there is name and reputations to consider, but little money in the treasury. When the rains play truant, the people of Kantagiri leave in hordes for the city by the sea and part two of the book chronicles the journey and life experiences of Jasoda and her brood. The last two parts of the book further tells the reader about Jasoda’s return to her village and her forays into making a better life. Calling Jasoda a book that only looks at a woman’s journey from poverty, domestic abuse and being left to fend on her own to one of prosperity and coming in to money would be a mistake for there are other characters and other plots at work.
Jasoda as a character is many women in India burdened by domestic abuse and patriarchal norms: the ones who rage against what is given in their fate, not with spunk and fervour but with tenacity and the ability to take things on the chin. You can only marvel at the way she keeps her children alive and deals with losses and new ways of a changing world around her. Yes, there were times I wanted to take hold of Jasoda and give her a tight shake, to see if she would just be more decisive with her abusive husband whose sole purpose in life is to snatch what is not his. I am glad I found out towards the end of the book that I didn’t really have to give that shake to Jasoda!
The afterword section tells us that there was a 20 year break in between the first part of the book and the remaining parts and I guess that explains the cagey timeline and the way ‘Mumbai’ is used throughout the section instead of ‘Bombay’. But Nagarkar’s characters and more specifically, the arc of Jasoda’s eldest son Himmat, Jhanvi the youngest daughter who gets to survive after her birth unlike other infant girls born to the family only because of Himmat, Prince Parbat Singh who is almost a mirror in meanness with Jasoda’s husband and the narrative are such that the reader really doesn’t care much of the timeframe of incidents and ambience described throughout.
I would recommend Kiran Nagarkar’s Jasoda: book readers will know all too well that it is in the Longlist for the JCB Prize for Literature. You can find details of the book here