William Dalrymple’s blurb review of Deepika Ahlawat’s first book ‘Maya’s Revenge’ raised my expectations from it no end. I will go back to what he says, but first, my impressions about the book.
The setting of the book is an India that is a federation of princely and republican states. Glittering princes are seen drinking wine with khadi-clad politicians and conspiring against them too. In this context, young orphan Bindy enters the palace of Sheerpur as PA to Princess Riddhima – sometimes entranced and other times repulsed by the ways of royalty. At the epicenter of the plot is a contract that Kamroop, a group of assassin yoginis with supernatural powers, has been given - that of murdering the crown prince, Riddhiraj. The blurb calls the book ‘a dark fantasy shot through with the piquancy of political drama.’
In a book thick with characters, unhurriedly walking around a mystery and wrought with topical politics, I pick three aspects to talk about - the treatment of Spaces, the idea of Power and Deepika’s use of the Supernatural element. All three interlinked and very telling about our socio-political and cultural milieus.
When proficiency in language is a given, enjoyable descriptions – of the beautiful or the bleak – follow as night follows day. ‘Maya’s Revenge’ will gift you moments of sitting in palace balconies admiring the work on the marble fountain in all its regal detail. And then, it will snap you to a government office where cats occupy police officers’ workday, as the author’s pen playfully makes the characters its playthings. A room full of wedding jewels will ‘make your eyes draw breath, ‘tis so soothing’ but hold a gory nightmare a few leaves later, full of nothing but ‘bilious colour’ and a half-beaten Prince. Deepika keeps us moving between kinds of scenes, with the aim to impresses upon us exploitative hierarchies and manipulative beings. Be it Bindy feeling heady with attention but realizing ‘She was still standing outside’ the privileged circle, or Pran, the DC of Police, living on and for the ‘deeply ingrained awareness of hierarchy and respect’, even in his bedroom that is. What the author is actually conveying? How Power comes to occupy various Spaces.
Power – Political and Sexual
Whether in Sheerpur’s palace gardens or in the lawns of Lutyen’s Delhi, an Old versus New breathes. The old political order rules, while the younger lot indulges in inherited glory – royal or political. Difference of opinion and outlook runs like subversion. Most characters conform to the old order. While they exude and execute through power, Riddhiraj confesses ‘I would very gladly not be the Yuvraj.’ His occupation is apparent, as maids giggle, ‘Maharani sa is … reciting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra with guruji for the Yuvraj … and what is Yuvraj doing? Half the female population of the world!’ Noticeably, all prominent characters enjoy some version of Power, and most want to enjoy another kind too. It is this aspiration that feeds the leitmotif of the book – political intrigue.
The concept of sexual power in the 21st century is shown as is. Women are objects in male hands – masturbatory trophies or for buying kingdoms. Roopa, Pran’s wife, ‘Obediently lay down on the bed and spread her legs. Five minutes later Pran was grumbling about the water pressure in the bathroom while his wife was back in the kitchen, chopping onions for his tiffin.’ Bindy’s ‘curves, disgusting and guilt-provoking in the convent, were Rubenesque and appropriate in this world of marble and frosted glass,’ and that is how spaces define sexuality. Despite her erotic dreams, Bindy’s ‘urge to twist her torso to prevent the invasion’ by Riddhiraj makes this ‘consensual’ encounter border on rape. The spoilt princess Riddhima plain-speaks her brother saying ‘There is no crime in saying I find you … unworthy of the throne. I am better than you at everything, and yet I leave here with nothing and you get everything. How is that fair?’ It is fair, in the patriarchal scheme of living. No more questions asked as she is silenced with her ‘punishment’, that of being married off.
In the Maharani, sometimes, streaks of power shine like a thunderous silver lining. She threatens her husband ‘I will kill you with my bare hands and I will bathe in your blood’ if her son is harmed. She questions the system – ‘My dear husband … he may say he doesn’t want the caste system, it’s archaic and evil, but how can one have kings in a world of equal men? And equal women?’ but continues as nothing more than a mute spectator, with an opinion expressed only under duress, or within her room of ‘restrained barrenness.’
So what does the author conjure as a way out of this real silencing and abuse of women? Supernatural Powers. Let’s see how.
Use of Supernatural elements
Deepika creates Begum, the ‘Woman of Kamroop’, surrounded by a wonderland and a thousand versions of her death and ruling over a secret group of women assassins, to challenge and threaten men in their politics. Even the powerful Thakur is ‘wounded by the arrow of thine eyes’. We see her dictating police transfers and contracting royal deaths, making a ‘pawn in an interesting game’ of those who call the shots in the ‘real’ world. A woman who sees inside the most devious of men’s minds, and dismisses it as child’s play. And a world where the women surrounding her are deadly vaporous assassins who can kill, can reveal a person to his own grime – like Riddhiraj’s ‘awakening’ at the hands of ‘maya, I am all things and I am nothing.’
Unfortunately, even this is no emancipatory Power.
One, it is not real but what supernatural dreams are made of. Is Deepika then trying to say that in the real world of power politics women cannot hold their own? And is that why all powerful women belong to the legend of Kamroop here? It takes magic, no less, to give them an equal share in the power-pie? Is this reflective of a hopelessness?
Two, by the end of the book we realize the Begum’s world is also a world full of hierarchies, subservience, power-play and violence. It is simply a parallel world to the real one. Nothing more. What is done to women in the patriarchal world is what they are doing to men in theirs.
The Problems, and Questions for the Author
… and there are many. Let me list them out.
1. William Dalrymple calls the book a mix of Indiana Jones, Shobhaa De and James Tod. Now, while this “multi-genre” porridge worked for him, it did not for poor old me. The intrigue is never deep enough. Threads of suspense get suspended with extra-long breaks describing palace rituals or the condition of ‘India Shining’. The extent of political realism, long passages on Sheerpur’s state-of-the-art affairs or Gandhi seem not just distractions from an otherwise interesting story, but needless elaborations. The effect of conspiracy brewing or magic plotting murder in this ‘dark fantasy’ is entirely diluted.
2. One of the pivotal scenes of the book is maya holding the Prince captive in his own room. ‘She denuded him of his pride’. Sadly, the scene reeks of typicality. Calling Riddhiraj a shallow nympho and asking him to learn the name of ‘every single man or woman who works for you’ seems like a schoolmarm giving a moral science lesson to a man who had no choice in his royal upbringing. Nothing in the book prepared us for this sudden character assassination, especially since we had got enough peeps into the Prince’s mind.
3. We meet Bindy’s Leela while she is still at the convent, we even learn that somewhere in the palace ‘Leela had awakened’ but really, what were these stray references to what seemed like Bindy’s alter-ego all about? Or maybe I am missing something here?
4. As surprising as Bindy using the words ‘metallic penis’ is the sudden bonding between Adam and Bindy, as they visit the city outside the palace walls. Something that was not built up enough in the preceding chapters.
5. And all attempts at dropping hints – real or false – confuse. From ‘someone in the palace was trying to help Bindy’ secretly to the Maharani saying ‘How … suitable’ when the orphan girl’s background is told. Even Adam’s idea of the ‘serpent stone’. The book tries to mislead in its intrigue but ends up confusing its own self.
If anything, it is the end and the mysterious epilogue, which might keep you thinking. Does Maya stand for Greed, or Carnal Desires or Evil ruling supreme? And was there really a ‘revenge’ achieved?
I appreciate the author’s attempt at a dark fantasy of epical proportions set in a world devoid of any kind of love. Her language is impeccably expressive and some characters, like Adam and the Thakur, are well created. And I admire her “appearances” into the book with her honest opinions about ‘India … where misery was the standard finish on existence’ and where ‘casual and unthinking cruelty that children of men show to those who are the slightest bit different from them’. It is in such passages that the victory of the author’s female voice is achieved. And it is in her portrayal of Power and Sexuality that a thematic victory for the book is attained.
Title: Maya’s Revenge
Author: Deepika Ahlawat