Sarah Lawson reviews a debut novel by Shanta Acharya which deals engagingly and touchingly with a young woman’s hopes and disappointments in India during the 1960s.
A World Elsewhere Shanta Acharya iUniverse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2015 ISBN: 978 1 4917 4364 5 360 pp $19.95
“Life is what happens to us while we’re waiting for things to happen,” concludes the heroine of Shanta Acharya’s debut novel, A World Elsewhere, as she starts a new phase of her life. Acharya gives us an insider’s view of an educated Brahmin family in the 1960s and the life of a young woman who charts her own course through the social conventions of that time and place. The conventions are just flexible enough for an ambitious woman with a good education and a supportive family to make important decisions about her own life. However, tradition still exerts a powerful influence, and much of the interest of the novel is the conflict between the dead hand of conventionality and the individual life of a young woman.
Asha Guru, the daughter of a Brahmin family in the Indian state of Orissa, grows up in a scholarly milieu—her father teaches at Harrison College in Cuttack and the Gurus live on campus. She does well at school and then university in spite of the machinations of the notorious Patnaik couple. Asha goes on to a master’s degree in English and is even invited to British Council conferences.
Through the years as Asha grows up we learn the customs of the Guru family in particular and the wider society in general. Central to these is the highly fraught matter of marriage, dowry, and the relations between the sexes.
“In a society where exchanging glances with someone of the opposite sex acquired significance, Asha had learnt to put on a mask when she stepped out of her home, a mask that made her appear serious, unapproachable, not someone to be trifled with.” But even for a woman wary of the pitfalls, there are unforeseen dangers. A fellow student, Anand, capitalises on a casual comment. She innocently asks him if the empty lecture theatre where they are standing is the right room for the Eng Lit Hons class and he mumbles a reply. From this small routine event the young man spins an acquaintance, a flirtation, and eventually a relationship and finally marriage. We are not sure what to make of Anand, and we don’t see his family (nor, unfortunately, does Asha) until the marriage is a done deed.
If in-laws in any culture can be a problem, in-laws in India present special difficulties because the bride leaves her own home and becomes part of her husband’s family. As the reader meets Anand’s family at the same time Asha does, there is some satisfying suspense as their character is gradually revealed. They are a far cry from Asha’s own generous and loving family. Anand’s people are petty and grasping and spend a lot of time talking about money and possessions. Although a dowry was waived, the in-laws sneer that one should have been provided anyway.
Anand turns out to be brutal and quick-tempered. Is Anand a pathological liar? He lies about small things, like his birth date. What kind of weirdo is he, anyway? Asha discovers a wounding betrayal: her husband has left her very private letters to him lying around the house. She discovers one in a pile of magazines, and we are as shocked as she is. We see that Asha has made a big mistake, but it takes longer for her to realise it. She confides in her diary, “I love the man I thought he was, but I cannot live with the man he is.”
Their love-making before marriage was mutually pleasurable, but now it looks more like rape. Anand, in short, is a two-faced, sadistic, controlling, Jekyll-and-Hyde character, and Asha seems to be in for a life sentence with this brute and his obnoxious family, because divorce is barely heard of in their society. Asha vacillates between thinking the marriage can be salvaged and seeing that it is a hopeless case. However, divorce is not impossible and Asha gets the marriage cancelled when she sees that there is no alternative. “Better to fail by sticking to one’s principles, she thought, than succeed by not having any.”
This is the saddest, most touching part of the novel. The sense of disappointment and despair is well done, and we see the situation through Asha’s eyes and also those of the wiser narrator. Anand is an appalling husband and Asha even aborts a foetus because she doesn’t want a child with the husband she has now come to loathe.
So what is left for an intelligent Indian woman after a disastrous marriage? Asha has a way out, which is also an opportunity—a fellowship to Oxford, where she is going to pursue further studies in English literature. It means leaving India and her family, perhaps forever, but there are also the infinite possibilities of a new country, new work, new friends, new customs and expectations in that World Elsewhere.
Sarah Lawson is an American-born London-based writer whose novel The Bohemian Pirate has recently been reviewed in London Grip. Her most recent collections of poetry are All the Tea in China and The Wisteria’s Children, a collection of 100 haiku.