As a writer and person, I have always been interested in how societies and communities deal with change – and not to handle it at a macro, huge level but to examine how individuals cope with changes. So when I began my new novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, I wanted to deal with the contradictions of being an urban contemporary Indian. And I wanted to write a novel about
As a child growing up in
All the characters in the book are people you may well run into while shopping in Dariba Kalan or at the India Habitat Centre or in Lajpat Nagar. They are Dilli-walas, but like many Dilli-walas, they also have their roots in a village that is geographically close to the capital but psychologically may as well be in another century. And my characters go back and forth as they juggle both realities. For me that is also
So my characters also juggle violence with urbane grace.
Strangely enough, when the book began to do the rounds, people focused in on the sati angle. The book has been called “provocative.” Another critic suggested that the characters choices “suggest a moral vacuum that is unacceptable today.” Why must fictional characters make acceptable choices? Or indeed why should human beings live their lives by making “acceptable” choices? And acceptable to whom? Imagine asking Dostoevsky or Camus to construct characters that would function morally. Even the choices made by Yudhisthar – the most righteous of all - in the Mahabharata are complex and never quite entirely moral.
Oddly enough, the sati angle was not that important for me while I was writing the book. I did realize that people make choices that seem self-destructive and violent. Yet to understand something is not to justify it or condone it. And that fascinates me. The choice to kill oneself for an ideology was very much in my mind also because the book was born in the rather tumultuous year of 2001. References to 9/11, the
In fact, for me Damayanti – the Miranda House-educated lawyer planning to be sati after her husband’s death - is a very complex person. One can’t understand her decision in terms of “poor, oppressed, superstitious.” In fact through out the novel, Damayanti is unable to articulate her own motives for choosing sati because they are far more complex than simply about devotion to her husband or religious faith or even evading the law.
There is a reason for her turning inarticulate when faced with her own actions. Human beings never take drastic action for one sole reason. So a Tamil Tigress doesn’t blow herself up because of a single motive. And people don’t fly airplanes into buildings as a result of a single monolithic ideology. Nor do people kill their brothers in an alleged “fit of anger” for one single reason. When we simplistically try to classify human actions as results of one sole motive, we refuse to understand the multi-causality of human behaviour and actions. And that means we refuse to understand human beings! As a writer, my intention is to make sense of who we are and why we behave the way we do. So Damayanti’s decision to be sati is something that is driven by a number of reasons, all of which are internally coherent. That doesn’t mean that I agree with those reasons or for that matter fully understand them. But it is important to explore them and at least try to reach some comprehension.
Some critics have alleged that
We must – as writers and thinkers – differentiate between understanding and justifying a phenomenon. And the first step to understanding is to realize that human beings are complex, and to recognize their humanity. Even if that means we are left with uncertain conclusions.
In my novel this means Damayanti is not a “madwoman”, or even a particularly oppressed one. She laughs and cries, loves and is afraid. In other words, she is human. Just as
And I truly believe that particular lesson is the hardest of all to learn, and to practice.
With Krishna's Eyes is out in India, in all major bookstores, published by Rupa Publications. It is also available in Spanish, with the title, La Mirada de Krishna, from Ediciones El Cobre.
Author photo courtesy Tarun Vishwa. Book jacket cover image courtesy Rupa Publications.