In his seventh novel, Kiran Nagarkar returns to the Rajput setting that captured our imaginations in his celebrated Cuckold. But Jasoda veers and stutters where the earlier novel sang and danced.
Jasoda is a quotidian heroine through whom the book tells a story of a woman trapped by circumstance but crawling her way out by any means necessary. The reader is dropped straight into her world. Introduced to Jasoda giving birth while grazing a cow in the parched village of Kantagiri — resting against a barren tree as the bovine animal licks the sticky placenta off the newborn. The even harsher realities of her life are revealed as she immediately kills the baby girl. It’s a dark and raw beginning, apt for the visceral painful journey for which the author is preparing the reader.
From the first page, Jasoda lives every social evil that urban India would like to forget thrives across our land. She bears three sons, and one daughter — whom she lets live only after her son pleads; she earns food for her children, abusive husband and invalid mother-in-law by working as a midwife. Living on land that’s seen too little water, she has to explain rain to her kids; Jasoda’s is an existence driven by determination and severely lacking in choices.
In the novel’s afterword, Nagarkar writes: “Take any of the great epics, it’s the men like Ulysses, Arjun, Ram, Hector, Achilles who are the heroes. In quotidian life, it’s very often the women who are epic heroines.”
Jasoda is very much the story of an Indian woman. The novel is fiction, yes, but it could be set in the villages of India. It’s a stark and excruciating story of what it takes to ensure one’s survival and in that way makes for very interesting if brutal reading. Jasoda is not a character to be put on a pedestal. It’s unlikely that readers will find her relatable. She is raw, real, unforgiving; improvisation is her gift. She has no room for morals.
A stunningly etched character, Jasoda is abundant only in details and authenticity. Like his protagonist, Nagarkar has done away with sentimentality in favour of reality.
For a reader, there is the sense of being traumatised for Jasoda even as she goes about her day enduring painful pregnancy after painful pregnancy.
The accounts of her giving birth on a staircase or while holding up a mirror for her callous husband haunt the rest of the book as much as they inform us of her life.
Nargarkar’s story is told in scenes rather than in an oversentimental inner monologue. He draws bold strokes with twisted words and unambiguous views. When Jasoda helps give birth to a baby girl, she does not miss a beat in asking the mother if there’s “anything else” she wants the midwife to do. It’s subtle and supremely heart-wrenching to be confronted with the protagonist’s distaste for the girl child. But, Jasoda’s position is understandable as practical.
When she and her three sons and mother-in-law leave the dry lands of Kantagiri, the family tries to find a new start in Mumbai. This proves difficult. Pregnant with her fourth child, Jasoda’s slight frame and burgeoning belly disqualify her from working as house help. Her sons are sent begging on the streets.
Split into four parts, Nagarkar’s book echoes the lilting narration of Cuckold only in Part One, which is set in Kantagiri. Jasoda’s move to Mumbai is chronicled in Part Two, and in Parts Three and Four we follow the arc of her return to the village. But this is by no means a hero’s journey. Though she returns with prosperity in tow, her character has no epiphanies or emotional revelations that are at the crux of epic tales. This is pointedly marked by Jasoda’s unsympathetic view of her only daughter Jahnvi. Again, Nargarkar’s is not a maudlin heroine but a real practical woman. The result is a divided reader — you want Jasoda to rise above her circumstances, but she does so only to an extent.
The same is to be said for her husband. When Jasoda returns, she finds that he, Chhote Huzoor has become Sangram Singh and now has power over the royal assets of the area. Her return doesn’t go as she expected, and after finding that Singh’s new position holds no benefit for her and the children, Jasoda sets out again. This time, she has closure.
Three characters are sketched out as stark as reality in this novel. Jasoda, Himmat her eldest son and Jahnvi. They are, by far, the ones for whom the bell tolls in this story. Jasoda is Nagarkar’s everywoman, and the betrayal of her children leaves a gnawing ache in the mind of the reader. Ancillary characters also emphasise this theme of a parent’s bane. Not sure if his children will be there to see to his cremation Jasoda’s neighbour Siyaram collects firewood for his pyre and hides it.
Written over many years and in starts, Jasoda, the novel, suffers from some narrative discrepancies. However, given that 20 years went by between the time Nargarkar began Part One and the book’s fruition, it is ironed down quite nicely. Apart from some confusion as to the children’s ages and such, perhaps the most significant giveaway to this gap in its creation is the writing style itself. Part One’s words and imagery have the lilting haunting quality that made Cuckold so appreciated. Despite the brutish events unfolding before the reader, it’s by far the most beautiful part of the novel.
In the end, Jasoda is an unrestrained and poignant telling of a survivor’s story. The eponymous character is authentic and precisely drawn out. In that sense, it’s a must-read.