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Abhaya by SaiSwaroopa: A Review

by on January 6, 2016

My love for Krishna started when I was on the threshold of adolescence…In my quest, I found my flute holder grow up to become a king maker, a philosopher and a Yugapurusha. Accordingly my feelings transformed from infatuation to reverence to continuous enquiry (Jignaasa)”. With this personal story, the author Sai Swaroopa, draws us into her world of Krishna Leela as showcased in her novel Abhaya. Her world with an emphasis because this novel is distinctly feminine in its observations, analyses, faith, love and dare I say, the writing too?

Why do we love stories? What is it about myths that linger in the womb of a civilisation which remembers, rejuvenates, and renews them with retelling the old tale? Is there perhaps an inexplicable, transcendent truth beyond the obvious? Could it be that stories are a way to temporarily reach out to an experience beyond the definitive and replenish your soul? Our tradition seems to affirm this, with the many variants of “katha kalaskhepam” found across India. And Sai Swaroopa chose the leitmotif of a “pittakatha” – which is typically built around but digresses from a mythological story to verbalise a political or philosophical concept for telling the story of Abhaya.

So this novel is about Abhaya, ‘the fearless’, princess of a fictional kingdom Anagha. It is about her world view, her struggle to maintain independence in thought and action; faith and despair and her altogether unworldly love for Krishna. Altough the novel is set in the time of the Mahabharatha, the only familiar characters from the epic besides Krishna are Subhadra, Mura and Bhauma. Each character that you meet here, however, is carefully crafted to showcase the ageless clash of conviction and fear- two sides to the coin of survival. Every discussion on societal change here hinges on the fulcrum of individual purpose and fulfilment but goes beyond and is at once is reverent to the effect of time on all aspects of human life and pertinent to current civilizational discourse in India.

Do you remember watching the tele-serial Chanakya and gaping in awe at the dextrousness of Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s art in which the narrative about “rashtra” and its corollary of statecraft was succinctly woven into the story of Chandragupta’s coronation? If you do, you will find it easy to appreciate my awe of this author’s skill at entwining this rather relevant theme of today- the interplay of religion and politics – into Abhaya’s saga of self actualisation.

Abhaya thumb

This then is also a story of three kingdoms- and Avanti, Kamarupa and Indraprastah, – each at different levels of consolidation of political, economic and religious power and their struggle for survival. Avanti is a clearly prosperous and hence influential kingdom which counted smaller neighbours such as Angaha among its allies for the sheer magnitude of its socio-political influence. Kamarupa, the seat of the Shaktha Shrine of Kamakhya is ruled by Bauma and his evangelistic missions have strong political ambitions which he is shrewd enough to hide even from his closest allies and using them all the while to advance them; And finally, Indraprastah is the new comer and harbinger of hope, which with Krishna’s backing is surely on its way to charting a new course for Bharatvarsha’s future.

In this clash of the titans, which virtually destroyed her kingdom, Abhaya has to find a purpose for herself, face her demons- both inner and otherwise, question her faith and altogether overwhelm you as a reader with her unrelenting quest for the ‘cause’. In her journey, we meet women- strong willed such as Kadambari who chose to leave an unsuccessful marriage and pursue her spiritual growth; masters of strategy such as Subhadra who can teach Krishna a leaf or two on political acumen, wise and open minded like Sheyni who pursues love with as much rigor as her freedom to chose. We also meet women such as Dhatri- gullible, self-deceiving and perhaps rendered vulnerable because of her turbulent past. What is striking is that none of the women portrayed is looking for a saviour. But yes, Krishna, the universal lover, is always in the picture, yet never quite there- at once mysterious and human, wise and whimsical, crafted by the author’s pen into a man who is man enough to let a woman be herself (a far cry from the many mythological movies I grew up with).“Can we combat the fear with faith? Can we keep our faith undeterred when the last traces of hope melt away? Can we receive blame and adulation, accept them and yet not give in to them?” He questions and ponders. Not Arjuna’s self-assured guide, Krishna here is one with Abhaya in her persuasion, uncertainty and diffidence.

If the book were any different, I would probably have dwelled frequently used inanities and cribbed about how much more natural it would have been to use Telugu terms of endearment instead of “Bhagini/Bhrata/Vatse” and about how suddenly it ended (that it ended at all!). But after eating an eight course spread on a banana leaf, one can only describe how wholesomely fulfilling the meal was. How beautifully it brought forth the relationship between existential questions of spirit with that of the corporeal. If the spice in the rasam was a little too much to bear, I didn’t even notice.

What I ended up pondering on is the endurance of myths. While myths are timeless, the messages they seem to convey are certainly not static. I wondered if Abhaya was a character in the Vyasa Bharatha, would she be worshipped like Radha? And then I wondered what happened to Panchali? Why don’t we worship her anymore? Somewhere do we all succumb to the use of contemporary frameworks in identifying the “sacred” in traditions? Why is it that today we (Hindus) seem to prefer keeping the sacred separate from the ‘profane’? Is the fear of being misunderstood by cultures foreign to ours shaping our ethos slowly? Or is Abhaya’s Krishna questioning us “Can we combat the fear with faith? Can we keep our faith undeterred when the last traces of hope melt away? Can we receive blame and adulation, accept them and yet not give in to them?

I tweet at @vishwapriya25

The novel can be bought from Amazon

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