Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yashpal’s Divya, reviewed by Anuradha Shankar

There have been many Indian authors who have made their presence felt by their way with words, whether in English or in their mother-tongue. One such author is Yashpal, who wrote in Hindi in the days before India regained her independence, but whose works continue to be read and appreciated even today, and more importantly, are relevant even today.

Thanks to Blog a Penguin India Classic, I have had the opportunity to read and review one such gem from his collection – Divya.

Divya is the story of a woman’s quest for freedom set in the first Century BC – a time when the friction between Hinduism and Buddhism had crept into the politics of the times. Kings were fast embracing the convenient precepts of Buddhism, while Brahmins were trying to rid society of what they felt was a threat to their superiority. In addition to all this were the Greeks who had their representatives in powerful positions in most kingdoms, capable of dictating terms with their wealth and power. Yashpal recounts the fictional story of a young girl growing up in this milieu, while keeping to historical facts of the era in the matter of happenings and events. It must have been a difficult task, researching all the details, and he seems to have traveled widely all over India collecting the facts for this beautiful novel. That he, in his own words ‘has tried to avoid unforgivable errors’ is an achievement by itself.

The novel traces the story of Divya, born and brought up in a well to do and powerful Brahmin family, protected from the harsh reality of the outside world. To her, the turmoil going on due to the caste system and ruling hierarchy, and the different opinions within her own family are not really important, until the day she falls in love with Prithusen – the son of a freed slave, now extremely wealthy, but unable to shake off the stigma of his birth. In contrast to this is Rudradhir, son of the Acharya, the most eligible groom for Divya. While attraction for Prithusen makes her antagonistic towards Rudradhir, there is one more man in this story – Marish – the sculptor, who is almost an outcaste – though well born, he is an atheist, who chooses his own path, and refuses to do anyone’s bidding. While he is often punished by Divya’s great grandfather in his public capacity as the Chief Justice, he is welcomed into the elderly man’s home for open discussions on any subject.

While Divya and Prithusen fall in love, the country faces war, and finds itself completely unprepared. In such a situation, Prithusen’s father, the wealthy slave-turned-merchant, Prestha, a wily and cunning man, uses the opportunity to push his son forward and succeeds. Faced with separation due to war, the young couple succumbs to temptation, and soon Divya finds herself pregnant, and awaits the return of her lover from the war.

Prithusen returns victorious but injured from the war, and is awarded a hero’s welcome. He is tended to by the Greek President’s granddaughter, while Divya languishes in her home, trying to cover the growing signs of pregnancy. When Prestha suggests that in order to improve his situation, he ought to marry the president’s granddaughter, he is unable to stand up for himself and his love, and agrees to give up Divya.

Shocked and saddened by his betrayal, Divya leaves home to save her family’s honour, and thus starts her journey in quest of her own life. She is sold as a slave, forced to feed her mistress’ child rather than her own, and undergoes all sorts of troubles, until one day, faced with the prospect of being separated from her child, runs to the Buddhist monastery and asks for acceptance. While she tasted servility and cruelty as a slave, at the monastery, she learns about rejection on the basis of just being a woman – the monks refuse her plea because she is a single woman, protected neither by her father, husband or son. They inform her that she needs her protector’s permission to enter the fold of Buddhism. It is then that she learns the truth of the times – it is only a prostitute who is really free – she is free to use her body the way she wishes, though she uses it for all, she is beholden to none.

Chased by her master, she jumps into the Yamuna, only to be rescued by a courtesan. While her child doesn’t survive, the viceroy allows her to be handed over to the courtesan – Ratnaprabha. Now begins another phase of her life – where her talent for dancing is recognized, and she gains a new name – Anshumala. As Anshumala, she gains name, fame and wealth, and in the process, meets Marish and Rudradhir, both of whom ask for her hand in marriage. However, she no longer wants the protection of a man, because all she wants is freedom, which, she believes, she can get only as a prostitute.

Meanwhile, times change in Divya’s country, where, under the leadership of Rudradhir, the Brahmins manage to usurp power once again, and Prithusen finds himself a fugitive. He is granted sanctuary at the Buddhist monastery where the patient monk makes him aware of the futility of anger and revenge. Prithusen begins a new life as a Bhikshu, while Rudradhir struggles to forget Divya.

Devi Mallika, the state courtesan, and the erstwhile dance teacher of Divya, goes in search of an apt successor, recognizes and brings back Divya as Anshumala. She returns to the land of her birth, and all is set for her being declared Mallika’s successor, when she is recognized, and it is declared that, being a Brahmin by birth, she cannot aspire to the title of state courtesan.

She is now faced by the ultimate choice – the offer of marriage and status by Rudradhir, acceptance as a Bhikshu by Prithusen the monk and the marriage cum companionship of Marish, the outcast. What she chooses to do is something you must find out for yourself.

What really struck me about the book is this: It was written before independence – it could almost be a metaphor for India seeking her independence from the shackles of the outsiders, and also from the chains of tradition. It is a story set in the first century, yet the situation holds true even today.

Instances of moral policing by the so-called champions of Indian culture only highlight the situation the Indian woman is placed in, in this day and age. The story of Divya and her quest for her identity and freedom has never been more relevant. As I read the book, I found myself identifying more and more with this talented and simple girl caught in the web of intrigue and politics of caste and creed, tradition and freedom. Once I started, I couldn’t keep it down, and it has only spurred my desire to read more and more such books.

Anuradha Shankar

Find out more about Yashpal's Divya here.


  1. That is a classic review of a Classic book - Divya. In a captivating bird's eye view of Yashpal's book - Divya, Anuradha seems to have mastered the story line with her indepth reading. Her subtle connection of the 1st Century book to the current scenario of moral poilicing brings to the fore a woman's plight inspite of the new world where we have Sonia Gandhi ruling the roost, Mayawati tilting the scales, Pratibha Patil enjoying Presidenthood, and of course all female the corporate divas.

    Anuradha you said it right !

  2. A refreshing review and complete in itself. While I read Yashpal's Divya through Anuradha's review, I feel it was Anuradha's story telling capacity that kept me reading.

  3. Thanks, Shisir, and introspection....
    glad you liked the review... the appreciation is especially great, since this is the first review i have ever written...

  4. Excellent. If the review is so reverting that in the midst of busy official routine, I had read it in one go, I am now tempted to get the book and read it at the first opportunity. Very keen to know Divya'a choice.

    This review has bought out a thriller out of a historical story. Thanks Anu.

  5. Anuradha Shankar has done an excellent job of reviewing this masterpiece. Her width matches that of the author, and the prose is crisp and precise. I look forward to reading the book. Thanks, Anuradha. I also look forward to reading more reviews from you.

    Shekar Raghavan

  6. i too think this is a beautifully written held me captive till the very end...and guessing too...yes, it must be marisen she goes to in the end (perhaps).

  7. Great review - especially with how systematically you have established the relevance of the book in current times.

    Gotta go buy it now... :-)

  8. Superb, Deepa Akka. Miss our book chats. :-(