New Life , Vijay Dan Detha - Review

I first read Vijay Dan Detha’s work earlier this year. While looking up some information on Charandas Chor I came across The Crafty Thief. Habib Tanvir’s Play- Charandas Chor is based on a folk tale from Rajasthan. The story was originally  narrated to him by Vijay Dan Detha. More on this in a previous post.
New Life is a compilation of some of his work, translated and edited by Mridul Bhasin, Kailash Kabeer and Vandana R Singh.  I understand that the skeleton for each story is drawn from folktales and the characters and experiences have been fleshed out and provided added dimensions by the author.
What has made this a compelling read for me is the depiction of  inner reflections of the women in the narrative. Their overriding themes are relationships and patriarchy in its various forms. All female protagonists are shown to have a strong inner voice that leads them to view their relationships with spouses and lovers with critical depth. They arrive at almost a feminist vantage point in viewing social life. The reflections woven through the narrative lead the reader to the conflict at the core of the protagonist. However reflections of male characters are absent and their decisions and actions seemed to be all similar to each others i.e revolving around retaining control and establishing superiority.
Some stories
Slough has a particularly unpredictable ending. A Gujjar husband expects his wife to humour the overtures of a Thakur.  Laachi (the wife) is dejected and hopes to restore her lost adoring faith in her husband by presenting him with ample opportunities to doubt intentions of a fellow villager towards her. The Gujjar fails to pass any of these tests and trials and Laachi’s disillusionment increases. Bottling this frustration Laachi finds her answers when she accidentally chances upon a Cobra shedding its skin. 
In many of these stories you run through multiple characters and sequences before being able to fathom who really the centre of the story telling is. The Crow’s Way is one such lengthy (but very readable) story. Starting with the lives and diet preferences of crows in Rajasthan and the swans in Mansarovar , the story leads to a rich Seths son and eventually his wife. Some tragic events follow and finally the wife is thrown out of the house and after some more tragedy ends up with a courtesan. The courtesans wisdom of the worlds ways sounds palpable to the woman and eventually she stays on. The woman's initial confusions on taking up this trade , her ambivalence towards the gentle and wise courtesan and eventual choice is portrayed through some interesting discussions and thoughts.
The story to watch out for however in New Life. Women’s sexuality is a beautifully discussed and though I‘ve heard that many oral traditions bear the evidence of acceptance of same sex love the story New Life is the first I‘ve read. However this love is found only in the midst of some trickery and malpractice which seems to be a pre cursor to acceptance of same sex love among many people to date. The text provides jubilant descriptions of the companionship and sexuality of two girls who were married to each other, their carefree union and the acceptance they find with the chieftain of ghosts. One of them does seek to be a man and convinces the other into asking for this boon off the ghost. The joy however vanishes from their union as with the male body comes the struggle for establishing ownership and superiority, which she realizes and decides to discard. And yes the girls live happily ever after. I loved this story- It was long winding but worth the time.

Very pointed discussions on a woman’s sexuality finds space in To each his own morality. The queen and the royal bards wife find themselves putting up with philandering  husbands, who seem to believe along with the rest of the court that staying monogamous is exceptionally difficult for men and natural for women. The women in question wonder in private about this and their angst is further heightened when they find themselves attracted to other men. Questions on whether this is acceptable rock the individual and the royal court and eventually with some drama the queen installs her lover as king and the bards wives lover as minister. What adds a punch to the ending is the fact that on coronation the new king finds himself thinking like the old. He loses trust in the queen who was not faithfull to her husband and the husband who is now a throneless and kingdom less king starts seeing the wisdom in his wife. Power as an ally to patriarchy? In the story the stable’s groom was loving and tender with the queen while he was just an untouchable while the King once debased finds that he can see the queens wisdom. In New Life ,  Beeja a girl child is brought up as boy and on his marriage he/she realizes the deceit. Beeja accepts her womanhood and Beeja and Teeja live in love and are happy. However , when she is granted the boon of becoming a man -  things change. In The crows way – The woman finds love and understanding from a courtesan (again someone living on the fringe). It made me think volumes on the times that these tales might have belonged to , Vijay Dan Detha's interpretation and reading of them and of course , the resonance in todays life.

However I will not try to cut up and dissect the stories any further. Many might find the book out-datedly feminist ( I hear feminism is outdated now? less fashionable?) , don't pay heed. Read it and figure out for yourself.  Ending this post with something from the book

–One of  Beeja’s thoughts when she wakes up to realize that she’s been granted her boon and is now a man.
It would not do if one is afraid of one’s own facial hair. The pride and pleasure of having a mustache lies in intimidating others!

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