Most popular entertainment in India is all about tedium. An hour of Indian television, Bollywood trailers, fashion- talks and all display our deep commitment to recycling. That Kanika K Dillion, the author of The Dance of Durga, is a screenwriter for the Hindi film industry, did not exactly make me quiver with expectation to grab her book for originality. Also, the title of the novel wasn’t particularly evocative, the alliteration notwithstanding. Since everyone tells me I should learn patience because apparently it is good for mental health, I decided to put a lid on my usual cynicism about popular Indian writing in English and prepared myself to be kindly disposed towards the novel.
The Dance of Durga, to my utter surprise (or maybe because I was, at last, becoming a more evolved person, patient and all that), did not make me contort with rage or disdain.
Refreshingly, the novel opens in a village in Punjab, not a cocktail party in south ‘Dalhi’. That, I thought, was a good start. Written in very competent and fluent prose, the novel is pacy and does not waste time on tortured ruminations of its woman protagonist. The book traces the ‘unusual’ life of Rajjo, a fiery girl born in a rural Punjabi family, her rebellions against gender conventions and fight against oppression. Before she is born, her crabbity, mad grandmother had insisted that she be named Durga, and predicted that the unborn girl would have special powers—that she was destined for great things.
True to her grandmother’s prophecy, Rajjo does have a special power—she can predict the future. But this special quality is not the real reason why she is chosen for greatness. Her real ‘Durganess’ lies in her determination and courage to transgress gender constrictions, her audacity to love without societal sanction, her refusal to be beaten by violence. But for me, her dismissal of Faith, which is so vaulted in our society, is what makes her truly heroic. Durga is undeterred in her path to individual realisation even though she is abandoned by her lover as a young girl, exploited by an abusive husband and sexually assaulted by a corrupt local politician. Every time she is faced with a challenge she rises to the occasion with renewed force and an even stronger determination.
After several hard trysts with fate and men, Durga, a confirmed non-believer, somehow finds herself in an ashram of a God-woman. Her talent of yore, that gift of foretelling, catapults her status from a hapless refugee in the ashram to a mystical God-woman. But unlike the ‘virginal matas’ (except Radhe Maa!), Durga burns with passion for a married man. The blasphemy is complete.
The novel is predictable in many ways. Still, one is not bored. Not terribly. Some parts of the novel do drag, but skipping a few pages would take care of that. Kanika Dhillion has a talent of story-telling. And even a deadbeat idea—heroic Durga-like woman fighting the world—is infused with a fresh manner of telling. If it is adapted as a film script, it could be a winner. One only hopes it won’t be called ‘Durga-the Dancer’. That, I think, might defeat the purpose of the story.