When I scooped up ‘Jasoda’ from a pyramidal book display at Crossword, I thought I was picking up the much-awaited masterpiece by Kiran Nagarkar. Lovingly, almost reverentially, I took the book home and sat up the entire night. And what did I get in return? A kick in the gut!
Yes, you read it right. A kick in the gut is what this book is. Nagarkar has taken a woman from the hinterland of India and given her all the perspective that his septuagenarian eyes could summon. Jasoda is an ordinary woman from a remote village in Rajasthan who toils uncomplainingly under the weight of patriarchy. She is an ordinary woman who moves to the city to stop her kids from starving to death. An ordinary woman who is invisible on the streets of Mumbai as people here are blind to the woes of pavement dwellers. And because she is an ordinary woman, her story is full of extraordinary courage.
Nagarkar has delved deep into the life of Jasoda. How she tolerates her rakish husband with forbearance, how she makes ends meet, how she takes the decision of moving to a big city without her husband… everything is presented to the reader plainly and simply. There is no space for ifs and buts in Jasoda’s life. It’s survival or death, and she chooses the former. And yet, Nagarkar has no false sympathy for her. As plainly as he states her struggles, he also puts forth her dark acts. She kills two of her newborn girls to keep up the patriarchal tradition of bearing only sons. She does it for her husband’s sake as it is his manhood that’s under question when a girl is born. But the clinical precision with which she commits infanticide is hers and hers alone. Remorselessly she goes on with her life. Can you feel sympathy for her? Perhaps yes, only if you can see the invisible yoke of patriarchy that sits firmly on her shoulder.
The novel charts her journey to the city, her struggles to find a livelihood, her endless losses (one son is kidnapped and another one latches himself onto Mumbai’s underbelly), the bittersweet taste of success and the unique bonding between her two sons and one daughter. Finally, in a bid to protect what she has so painstakingly built and the fragile happiness that has come her children’s way, Jasoda kills her husband.
Nagarkar does justice to each and every character in the book. No words are minced, no efforts spared in bringing out the truth about every character. His words are a prism through which you see everyone in their true colors. However, he leaves the ultimate judgment to the reader. I won’t be surprised if some of his readers find Jasoda criminal and justify her husband’s doing. A special mention is required of Himmat, her eldest son. The way Nagarkar has carved him out, he is very real and relatable.
But is Jasoda also real and relatable? Yes, she is. Do you think you will ever come across such a woman in real life? Yes, you will. But the problem is, you might not see her. She might remain invisible to you, because as I said before, Jasoda is an ordinary woman. There’s Jasoda in every Indian woman. And I hope and pray no man is foolish enough to unleash her. It’s not wondering really that Jasoda was conceptualized in 1997. It took Nagarkar 20 years to put her on paper. The novel’s narrative is linear and easy to follow, and the language is simple. Given the complex premise and complicated characters, Nagarkar has done the wise thing by paring down the rest of the technical details.
In one description of Jasoda’s rural existence, Nagarkar describes how her husband gulped down his food with blazing red chili chutney. That is the kind of experience that Jasoda the novel offers. It will set your mind ablaze, and no amount of water will be enough to douse its scalding spiciness.
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