I was hurtled through these pages at a dizzying pace till I reached the point where the eponymous heroine leaves the corpse of her mother-in-law on the steps of a Mumbai church, at the mercy of the statue of the lord nailed on the cross "for reasons beyond her." I took a breather there. Jasoda might just as well be wondering at her own bizarre life, floundering along the sidelines "for reasons beyond her."
She is the female anti-hero - valiant and cruel - perhaps a patriarchal icon who diligently commits female infanticide as a holy duty to her family and nation. The opening chapter delivers a hard blow as it plunges into the harrowing details of a woman holding on to a tree in a desertified landscape while giving birth to a baby girl, only to kill her with a sinister calm. You may shudder as she throws one trembling hand over her little boy's eyes to hide her trauma from his innocence. But Himmat watches this cycle of birth and death in one breath and grows into a different kind of manhood.
Mother-daughter bonds go for a toss here as Nagarkar tries to breathe life into a woman who has haunted him for almost two decades. She emerges from the back of beyond, moves into the margins of the mainstream, and the Indian-Engish readership should ideally begin to see their domestic help, the beggar boys at the traffic snarls, and the roadside vendors with different eyes.
In an India surging towards bitcoins and blockchains, revelling in baby showers and birthday bashes, Jasoda may strike a note of anomaly. But going by the stir she has made in the literary world, she has struck an uncanny chord with the readers. Obviously, certain mindsets have endured, but thankfully, there are the Himmats, Kishens and Jahnavis who mitigate the agony of doomed existences with rays of love, care and mercy. And it is apt to remind ourselves that Jasoda has illustrious predecessors and fellow travellers in other Indian literature and cinema which bilingual readers would be familiar with.
Nagarkar's style shreds itself to its bare bones before such pitiless grit, bred on centuries of prejudice and selfish rules of survival. Micro-narratives of rabid casteism, misogyny, killer droughts, famine, migration and urban poverty intersect with the larger stories of glitzy development and debauched royalty. A bleak scenario suffused with blunt wit and acerbic humour.
Power spreads, thick and poisonous, through infinite layers of social fabric with the sly intelligence of a Sangram Singh, the street-side lechery of a pavement boss, or the wily Plastick. Multiple strands of India come alive here, an India on the move, caught in the contrary currents of force and possibility; a country imagined from Kantagiri to Stanford; a country so hard on its women that you just cannot slot Jasoda as a hero or a villain. Typically, Nagarkar eschews judgements as he follows his men and women driven into a corner like Dulare hiding in a well from upper-caste wrath. You either live or die. Choice is a joke you choke on. Mired in corruption, the village and the city vie with each other in this ghoulish dance of sycophancy, chicanery, and fraudulence.
Despite its pervasive darkness, light steals in through the sibling tenderness of Himmat, Heera and Jahnavi. From Jasoda to Jahnavi, women cross several eras. Altogether a compelling read, I just wish that the story stayed focussed on Jasoda, without veering off into the lusty games in the palace rooms of Kantagiri.
Because Jasoda is not a type; she is a woman who chooses her struggles. Streetwise and practical, she aspires even as she tries to survive. There are menacing panic and dashes of wistful grace punctuating this relentless narrative, as when in the wee hours of her morning chores by the roadside, Jasoda's eyes wander over her sleeping family and a missing space between two sleeping kids urges her to wonder, "Where is Sameer?"
Motherhood is a different game altogether here, soaked in violence and rape, sending your senses reeling. Mythical resonances infuse the tale with a subtle irony, as in the birth of a slow-paced Kishen and a deliciously naughty Jahnavi. Sangram Singh meets with his nemesis in Madhurima Devi, who sees through his foul play in the disappearance of her baby girls and decides on a fitting reply.
Housed in a mustard-coloured cover, displaying the title embossed in red lettering, with the idyllic picture of a young village mother balancing water-pots on her head and a boy in tow, the book looks deceptive, to say the least.
You cannot curl up in your armchair or bed with this offering. It is not a gentle bedtime story that will lull you to sleep. It just might unsettle you for days, jolt you out of your comfort zones, and, hopefully, make us look again at all those lives we pass by daily without so much as a second glance. Through Jasoda, Nagarkar has gifted us a powerful woman who lives in the interstices between good and evil, a woman who eludes easy answers.