Vaasanthi’s ‘Breaking Free’ Book Review: Women’s Bonds in Rebellion and Acceptance

Express press service

The rust and indigo illustration on the cover of To liberate oneself This is what first grabs the attention, and Vaasanthi’s novel, translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, promises to be as enriching as its cover, as evidenced by the very first page. The story follows the life of a beautiful young Kasturi dancer, born into the Devadasi clan and destined to be a temple dancer at the age of puberty.

Alongside this unfolds the story of Kasturi’s childhood friend, Lakshmi, an incendiary rebel who will stray from her shameful roots and secure an illustrious career as a doctor and social reformer. There are no two heroines so different – Kasturi, devoted to the deity of the temple, and the fiery Lakshmi rebelling against this life of dance and music and seeking dignity and decency. The docile Kasturi is easily coerced into sexually placating the Raja in exchange for his patronage and accepting the situation as a way of life. Lakshmi, the born crusader, grows up to fight for the abolition of the Devadasi system. The lives of the two women intertwine, unravel and tangle once again in a classic twist of fate as events come to a stunning climax (no spoilers here).

Weaving through the two main stories is a third, a gauze thread running through this gray tapestry, a story set in the scenic locations of Kodaikanal and involving an enchanted forest, treacherous mists, a deep, still lake, and a death inexplicable by drowning. This mystery-filled third-generation story, with its biting suspense, easily overshadows the other two, and one fervently prays for it all to come together into a composite whole by the end.

A Devadasi was a girl who had to devote her life to
a temple deity.

Vaasanthi, with the most deft of strokes, conjures up an image of the female-dominated lifestyle of the devdasis where the disciplines of dance, music and coquetry reign supreme. There is freedom here, in a way, with restrictions. “Art cannot flourish in a regimented environment,” Kasturi told Lakshmi at one point. The ambiance of Tamil Nadu ritual culture is so vivid that one can actually view the temple chambers lit by dim lamps, smell the incense and hear the tinkling of ghungroos. The prose is as fragile as porcelain, yet full of attitude as the author nonchalantly jumps from one time zone to another, and from one place to another.

There is no attempt to minimize the reader’s intelligence by exaggerating or exaggerating things; the reader is fortunately led to adopt the author’s agility in keeping pace with the characters, the plot and the settings. Much of the Devadasi story is set in pre-Partition India and briefly touches on Gandhi and the freedom movement. The waves of political, religious, and social change sweeping through the country are skillfully intertwined with the fates of the devdasis. Another interesting leitmotif is the nuances of the mother-daughter bond; the contrasts between the maternal ties of Kasturi, Lakshmi and Dharini, who is Lakshmi’s granddaughter, are crude commentaries of the time. Some lines are etched in memory. “Her voice took on a gigantic shape, moved away from her and became a sovereign entity that enslaved her,” writes Vaasanthi.

Certain incidents such as Kasturi waking up to true love after years of her body swapping are truly memorable – “Wholly without her permission, her heart fell at her feet.” So many indefinite boundaries check this captivating book: the tacit demarcation between temple dance and prostitution, the subtle fault line between patrons who are both benefactors and sexual exploiters, the social barrier between the Devadasi clan and others, the conscience tension of the higher castes against the acharis. The predicament of the devadasi, unequipped for any other profession, in the face of abolition, is poignantly highlighted.

This book would have lost its luster in the hands of a lesser translator, and Raman’s expertise and insightful note are instructive and illuminating. Immerse yourself in the history and tradition of Tamil Nadu, bridge the gap between past and present, To liberate oneself is a nuanced and very important novel that deserves to be read and re-read.

Alongside this unfolds the story of Kasturi’s childhood friend, Lakshmi, an incendiary rebel who will stray from her shameful roots and secure an illustrious career as a doctor and social reformer. There are no two heroines so different – Kasturi, devoted to the deity of the temple, and the fiery Lakshmi rebelling against this life of dance and music and seeking dignity and decency. The docile Kasturi is easily coerced into sexually placating the Raja in exchange for his patronage and accepting the situation as a way of life. Lakshmi, the born crusader, grows up to fight for the abolition of the Devadasi system. The lives of the two women intertwine, unravel and tangle once again in a classic twist of fate as events come to a stunning climax (no spoilers here).

Weaving through the two main stories is a third, a gauze thread running through this gray tapestry, a story set in the scenic locations of Kodaikanal and involving an enchanted forest, treacherous mists, a deep, still lake, and a death inexplicable by drowning. This mystery-filled third-generation story, with its biting suspense, easily overshadows the other two, and one fervently prays for it all to come together into a composite whole by the end.

A Devadasi was a girl who had to devote her life to
a temple deity. Vaasanthi, with the most deft of strokes, conjures up an image of the female-dominated lifestyle of the devdasis where the disciplines of dance, music and coquetry reign supreme. There is freedom here, in a way, with restrictions. “Art cannot flourish in a regimented environment,” Kasturi told Lakshmi at one point. The ambiance of Tamil Nadu ritual culture is so vivid that one can actually view the temple chambers lit by dim lamps, smell the incense and hear the tinkling of ghungroos. The prose is as fragile as porcelain, yet full of attitude as the author nonchalantly jumps from one time zone to another, and from one place to another.

There is no attempt to minimize the reader’s intelligence by exaggerating or exaggerating things; the reader is fortunately led to adopt the author’s agility in keeping pace with the characters, the plot and the settings. Much of the Devadasi story is set in pre-Partition India and briefly touches on Gandhi and the freedom movement. The waves of political, religious, and social change sweeping through the country are skillfully intertwined with the fates of the devdasis. Another interesting leitmotif is the nuances of the mother-daughter bond; the contrasts between the maternal ties of Kasturi, Lakshmi and Dharini, who is Lakshmi’s granddaughter, are crude commentaries of the time. Some lines are etched in memory. “Her voice took on a gigantic shape, moved away from her and became a sovereign entity that enslaved her,” writes Vaasanthi.

Certain incidents such as Kasturi waking up to true love after years of her body swapping are truly memorable – “Wholly without her permission, her heart fell at her feet.” So many indefinite boundaries check this captivating book: the tacit demarcation between temple dance and prostitution, the subtle fault line between patrons who are both benefactors and sexual exploiters, the social barrier between the Devadasi clan and others, the conscience tension of the higher castes against the acharis. The predicament of the devadasi, unequipped for any other profession, in the face of abolition, is poignantly highlighted.

This book would have lost its luster in the hands of a lesser translator, and Raman’s expertise and insightful note are instructive and illuminating. Delving into the history and lore of Tamil Nadu, connecting the past to the present, Breaking Free is a nuanced and very important novel that deserves to be read again and again.

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Garland K. Long