September 2005

Sumita Sheth

fiction

A Bride for Jagannatha by Sasir Das

A Bride for Jagannatha promised to be a great read. As it is written by an Indian "public servant" as the administrative service and other Indian bureaucrats like to call themselves, I hoped to find something true to the soil of the place, full of gleanings and meanings that only an observer living in the thick of the Indian States can hope to have. However, I only found myself partially correct.

The book itself is not to be found in the US, published as it is in India by Dronequill and never brought abroad. I got hold of it during one of my visits to Delhi. The author does a good job starting the story and sharing the details of a young girl's life, fatherless and sadly apart from civilization in a remote village of Orissa. This girl, Rambha, is soon on her way to Puri where pilgrims come to prostrate at the doors of Lord Jagannatha himself, a form of Lord Vishnu. Once in Puri, like the other devdasis, she is married to Jagannatha's idol and expected to live her life by strict rules and devotion.

However, the book is too reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha -- from the way the girl makes her way from a very desolate, hinterland living to this very different "lifestyle," serving men to keep themselves alive. Each temple dancer must take on a patron, as do the geishas, and the protagonist's list of lovers is enumerated as was the Geisha Sayuri's. Rambha's first encounter with sex and how she loses her virginity is too similar to the way Sayuri does -- in one the old man lets her virgin blood fall onto a towel with his royal insignia on it and stores it away while in the other a doctor collects a sample of her blood on some cotton wool to add to his equally creepy collection.

What we cannot take away from the author, however, are the detailed descriptions of the processions, the ceremonies performed by the true devotees, the meanings and the beauty of the holy dances performed by the temple dancers. Being a recent convert to the Indian classical dance movements, I was amazed to read the way he conveyed their dance form via words, conveying the performance traditions.

He narrates the goings on in a Puri which is long gone. He tells us of the corrupt system on which the entire city balanced; the virgin temple dancers must sell their bodies to the learned pundits in order to attain decent shelter and enough food; the system of patronage is in place to maintain the unfair status-quo; the poor are good but often duped because of their faith; there is peace but lurking behind it is the violence that all power-play engenders. In the end, the greatest victims are the hapless dancers whose world begins to fall apart with modern changes, leaving them with nothing to hold onto, even tearing away their raison d'etre, their belief in Lord Jagannatha, their God.

The device for telling this story is a passing tourist who just happens to see Rambha dance her very last dance for Jagannatha. The editors could have advised that the device for a narrator be better constructed because it just sounds too arbitrary, thus leaving the reader a little unconvinced. The language is also a little weak in places, but the book as a whole is wonderful.

Despite my criticism of certain story-telling devices and the similarity between this story and Memoirs of a Geisha, I would recommend this book to whomever wants to read and learn about the times that were.

A Bride for Jagannatha by Sasir Das
Dronequill Fiction
ISBN: 8190138200
271 Pages