Divya by Yashpal (Translation – Anand)

Reading ‘This is not that dawn‘ was a fulfilling experience, one that stayed on in my consciousness much after I had put the book down. I was intrigued by the author and wanted to know more about him and read more of his writings. Incidentally, I had picked up one of Yashpal’s other works on an impromptu visit to the quaint Sahitya Akademi book store sometime back.  So with much expectation and anticipation, I read the translation of Divya a couple of days back. When it was published in 1945, Divya became the subject of much controversy and furore as it was about a woman who refused to live by the rules laid down by society.

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Divya is based in 1st century B.C. in a place called Sagal (modern day Sialkot, Pakistan) in the ancient kingdom of Madra at a time of social flux, conflicts and change. It was an era when Buddhism prevailed largely; however orthodox Hinduism with its emphasis on caste system was trying to make a comeback. In this volatile social climate, rife with tensions, undercurrents of conflict and change, the author bases his heroine, Divya, a young woman as a person in search of her own independence and freedom. Her struggles and ultimate resolve form the crux of the book. Divya, a young Brahmin girl, the great grand daughter of the Chief Justice of the Madra kingdom is an extremely talented dancer and a favourite of the state dancer/ courtesan, Devi Mallika. The story begins with the Festival of Spring where Divya wins the the title of ‘Daughter of Saraswati’ while the son of the rich slave trader, Prithusen, an ambitious talented young man wins the state martial art championship. His win is resented and not accepted by the Brahmin aristocrats because of his antecedents.

Divya and Prithusen fall in love in those uncertain times, when war and foreign invasions loom large over Sagal. Preshta, Prithusen’s father buys Prithusen’s place in the royal army. Prithusen soon goes to war. Meanwhile, Divya discovers that she is pregnant with his child. Prithusen comes back injured after a few months. As his father plots his next moves, Prithusen is not able to meet Divya and is asked to forget her. Divya is forced to leave her grandfather’s house because of the shame and ignominy and ends up becoming a slave. As a slave, Dara, she is sold to a Brahmin in another country where she works as a wet nurse. To escape the oppression on her and her child at her master’s house, she tries entering a Buddhist monastery. She is refused shelter as she does not have the permission of her father, husband or master. In sheer desperation, she throws herself and her child into a river. She is rescued soon enough and begins a new life, this time christened Anshumala. Her son unfortunately does not survive.

Some years pass. Anshumala becomes a dancer of much repute. Prithusen, through Prestha’s machinations, is the Chief Commander and is leading a unhappy, dissolute life. There is a coup again, when power is captured by the Brahmin aristocrats, led by Acharya Rudradhir. Prithusen escapes and is saved by a Buddhist monk. He undergoes a change there and becomes a Buddhist Bhikshu.

Meanwhile, Devi Mallika is looking for a successor worthy of her. She hears of Anshumala and goes to meet her. Devi Mallika recognises her old student and convinces her to come back to Sagal so that she (Divya/ Anshumala) can succeed her as the chief courtesan. However, at the coronation, Divya is recognised and Acharya Rudradhir and the other Brahmin aristocrats prevent her from becoming the courtesan. A high born, Brahmin girl cannot be a courtesan. Rudradhir, who was a former suitor and had been in love with Divya, once again asks her to marry him and become the first lady of Sagal. Divya rejects him as she does not want to lose her independence. Prithusen, her former lover and now a Buddhist monk, also appears on the scene and offers her the shelter of his monastery and the religion. Divya, who is unable to forget her rejection by the Buddhist monastery which led to her child’s death, rejects him as well. She first questions Prithusen on the status of women in Buddhism and then tells him that creation is nirvana for women and rejects his offer. At this point, an atheist philosopher named Marish, who had been her long-time admirer and an acquaintance, offers Divya his companionship. He does not paint his offer in terms of status, caste or community but puts it in simple terms. All he has to and can offer is his companionship – as a man to a woman on an individual level. The novel ends with Divya accepting Marish’s offer.

As mentioned before, this novel came under much criticism at the time of its publication. Some of it had to do with Divya’s statements in the book, such as  “The mistress of a noble family is not a free woman, she is not independent like a disreputable courtesan.” Divya rejects the life of a high-born woman after experiencing the independence of a courtesan. Such revolutionary, feminist ideas form the crux of Yashpal’s writings. While his contemporaries may have objected to Divya, there have been other younger authors who have stood by Yashpal’s writings.

One of the common themes in Yashpal’s writings was the unequal status of women in society. Women in his writings break away from the traditions and shackles imposed on them by society. Yashpal defines history as being “not a matter of belief, but of analysis. History is the self-examination by man of his past.” According to the author, the basis of this book is history coloured by imagination. This historical setting has been much criticised by several critics and questions have been raised about the authenticity of the details (especially to the extent of Greeks and Indians intermingling with each other.) But the author did not intend himself to make this just a historical work.

The focus is more on the social anomalies, inequalities and the status of a woman in a so-called ancient golden age. By a thorough analysis of the characters and period, Yashpal is rejecting the inequalities in Hinduism and its contradictory views on the status of women (as represented by Acharya Rudradhir), as well as the determinism enunciated by rigid Buddhism (as symbolised by Prithusen) and instead chooses a humanistic approach (an atheist Marish who values human beings and individuals for who they are, irrespective of their caste, class or gender. Marish is incidentally the author’s voice – expressing Yashpal’s own opinions on a range of issues.)

The triumph of the human spirit on top of the trials and tribulations and the ‘worth of the individual’ form the crux of Yashpal’s writings. Just like in ‘This is not that dawn (Jhoota Sach)‘, where the main protagonist, Tara succeeds despite suffering from several inhuman tribulations, here also Divya emerges successful. Both Tara and Divya reject present social mores and lead their lives the way they want to. This choice of a non-conformist lifestyle however comes after a period of social conformity. Hence their final rejection is an informed choice and a thought out decision.

What I liked very much in Yashpal’s writing is his amazing ability to include politics effortlessly into a simple story. Politics and society combine and one finds an incisive commentary on both in his writings. His main protagonists are simple human beings, not famous historical figures, whose lives get caught up often involuntarily and are changed due to the overarching politics of the time. But this tumult and experience of having their lives change because of the prevailing politics help his characters introspect and evolve into more thinking and active human beings. By the end of both Jhoota Sach and Divya, both Tara and Divya may not be firebrand feminists exhorting women to revolt. However they are active enough to quietly assert their own points of view and determine their futures.

There are several portions in Divya like Divya becoming a slave and the death of her child, that are poignant and depressing.  But the overall mood is hopeful and positive. And the end shows Divya in a happy place, more in control of her own life. This is similar to ‘This is not that dawn‘ where despite all the atrocities Tara undergoes during partition, she is happy and successful at the end. This hope and optimism combined with social realism what I liked the most in both the books I have read.

As a reader who likes historical fiction, one sore point could have been the lack of authentic historical details in his depiction of the era. However, I was prepared for it and it did not prove to be a deterrent in enjoying the book. The author himself remarks in his preface that this work may contain inaccuracies as this is a work of history coloured by imagination. The story thus read more like a fable – a story of an oppressed upper caste woman who rejects the society and its mores. The universality of the topic made it easier to relate to.

Yes I liked the book. Sixty years after it was written, the basic theme of the book is still relevant. While in no way close to the brilliance of his literary masterpiece, This is not that dawn (Jhoota Sach), Divya makes for an interesting read, especially for readers interested in history, politics and feminism.

7 thoughts on “Divya by Yashpal (Translation – Anand)

  1. Where do you get the time to read these books? 🙂 I have so many books on my bookshelves looking accusingly at me because I haven’t touched them since I bought them! And now you add what sounds like a very interesting read to my growing list of ‘to read’ books! WDIGTT??

    1. 🙂 LOL. What do I say to that? At present, am competing with my husband to see who finishes reading all the books on our to-be-read piles…and I hate to admit it – he is winning hands down! 😦

      As for this book, only managed to finish it while travelling to and from Bangalore last week – my son was fast asleep, which meant I could read peacefully. 🙂

      Do add this to your pile, Anu. This is very interesting – though I loved Yashpal’s Jhoota Sach (This is not that dawn) more. Waiting to get done with more of my existing pile before tackling the original Hindi book.

  2. Harini, that sounds like an interesting book – and it seems to say a lot about the author himself, his views on women (which appear to be refreshingly liberal).

    Would love to read, but who knows when I’m going to get the time? The pile on my bedside table (which is now a bedside trunk, since the table’s too small) is massive. And every time someone tells me, “Oh, you can find the time to read this one – it’s less than 150 pages”, I give in. 😀 The pile just won’t reduce; as soon as one book gets read and onto the shelf, another one takes its place.

    1. Madhu, it is an interesting book. The author was a liberal, nay a revolutionary, when it came to his views on women. He was apparently born out of wedlock and had been raised by a single mom. That probably shaped his outlook. I would have loved this book had I read it before This is not that dawn (Jhoota Sach). Nothing can match up to that masterpiece. Its been a few weeks, but that book still lingers on in my mind. You must read that for sure (though it is not 150 pages or less… on the contrary it is 1150 pages :p).

      Having said that, Divya is a very good book and deserves to be read …some day, sometime 🙂

  3. Even before reading this post I was intrigued about this about this book when you told me a summarised version of this story. For a book written in 1945, the author is refreshingly liberal and progressive. Not to mention that it’s fascinating that he touched upon atheism in such an organic way.

  4. Read this book long-time back in Hindi and thoroughly enjoyed it. Recently come to know about “Far from the madding crowd”,storyline looks very similar to “Divya”.

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