Vaasanthi’s 'Breaking Free' book review: Bonds of women in rebellion and acceptance

With the deftest of strokes, this novel conjures a picture of the women-dominated lifestyle of the devadasis, where the disciplines of dance, music and coquetry rule supreme.

Published: 17th July 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st July 2022 03:36 AM   |  A+A-

Breaking Free

Breaking Free.

Express News Service

The rust-and-indigo illustration on the cover of Breaking Free is what first arrests the eye, and Vaasanthi’s novel, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, promises to be as enriching as its cover, as is evident from the very first page. The story follows the life of a beautiful young dancer Kasturi, born into the devadasi clan and earmarked to be a temple dancer on attaining puberty.

Parallel to this runs the story of Kasturi’s childhood friend Lakshmi, a firebrand rebel who will go on to walk away from her shameful roots and secure an illustrious career as a doctor and social reformer. No two heroines could be so dissimilar––Kasturi, devoted to the temple deity, and the fiery Lakshmi rebelling against that very life of dance and music and seeking dignity and decency. The docile Kasturi is easily coerced into appeasing the Raja sexually in exchange for his patronage and accepts the situation as a way of life. Lakshmi, the born crusader, grows up to fight for the abolishment of the devadasi system. The lives of both women entwine, unravel and entangle once more in a classic twist of fate as events lead to an astonishing climax (no spoilers here). 

Weaving through the two main stories is a third one, a gossamer thread running through this grey tapestry, a story set in the scenic locales of Kodaikanal and involving an enchanted forest, treacherous mists, a deep still lake and an inexplicable death by drowning. This mystery-filled third generation story, with its nail-biting suspense, easily outshines the other two and one fervently prays for everything to come together as a composite whole in the end.

A Devadasi was a girl who was expected to dedicate her life to
a temple deity.

Vaasanthi, with the deftest of strokes, conjures a picture of the women-dominated lifestyle of the devdasis where the disciplines of dance, music and coquetry rule supreme. There is freedom here, of sorts, along with restrictions. “Art cannot flourish in a regimented environment,” Kasturi tells Lakshmi at one point. The ambience of the ritualistic culture of Tamil Nadu is so vivid that one can actually visualise the dim lamp-lit chambers of the temple, smell incense and hear the tinkle of ghungroos. The prose is as fragile as porcelain, and yet shot with oodles of attitude as the author jumps nonchalantly from one time zone to another, and from one location to another. 

There is no attempt to underplay the reader’s intelligence by over-explaining or over-stating matters; the peruser is happily led to adopt the author’s agility in keeping pace with the characters, plot and settings. A large chunk of the devadasi story is set in pre-partition India and touches fleetingly upon Gandhi and the freedom movement. The waves of political, religious and social changes blowing through the country are interwoven dexterously with the fates of the devdasis. The nuances of mother-daughter bonding make for another interesting leitmotif; the contrasts between maternal ties of Kasturi, Lakshmi and Dharini, who is Lakshmi’s granddaughter, are stark commentaries of the era. Certain lines become etched in memory. “Her voice assumed a gigantic shape, moved away from her and became a sovereign entity that enslaved her,” writes Vaasanthi. 

Certain incidents such as Kasturi waking up to true love after years of bartering her body are truly memorable—“Entirely without her permission, her heart dropped at his feet.” So many undefined boundaries checker this engrossing book: the unspoken demarcation between temple-dancing and prostitution, the subtle fault line between patrons as both benefactors and sexual exploiters, the social barrier between the devadasi clan and others, the uptight consciousness of the upper-castes against the acharis. The predicament of the devadasi, unequipped for any other profession, in the face of abolishment, is poignantly brought out.

This book would have lost its lustre in the hands of a lesser translator, and Raman’s expertise and an insightful note are informative and illuminating. Delving into the history and tradition of Tamil Nadu, bridging the past with the present, Breaking Free is a nuanced and all-important novel that deserves to be read over and over again.


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