Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (author) and Arunava Sinha (translator), The Yogini, Tilted Axis Press, 2019. 208 pgs.
The Yogini is Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s third novel; it is translated from Bengali by the prolific award-winning Arunava Sinha and published by UK-based Tilted Axis Press. The translations of Abandon (2017) and Panty (2016) represent just a fraction of a much broader body of work by the author, which to date includes almost a dozen novels and more than 60 short stories.
Growing up in Kolkata, Bandyopadhyay learned Bengali through reading Bengali literature while a student at Bagbazar Multipurpose Girls’ School. She is a newspaper columnist and film critic, and both of these aspects show in her latest novel. The prose is spare and lean, with short declarative sentences, while the scope of the novel is nothing short of cinematic. Some readers unfamiliar with the cultural background of this novel may associate the word “Yogini” with Lycra-wearing contortionists toting rolled-up rubber mats and boasting carefully curated Instagram feeds. This novel is not about any modern appropriated and commodified interpretation of the word, and there is not a single downward-dog in sight. Rather, the focus here is on the traditional meaning of an ascetic truth-seeker willingly abandoning all attachment in the quest for self-actualisation.
The story centres on Homi, who is well off, comfortably upper-middle class, and has a well-paid job at a television station. Her attentive husband Lalit is a banker who could easily double his salary by moving to any of India’s other major cities, but for various reasons they prefer to remain in Kolkata, not least to be close to Homi’s parents. Of Lalit we learn: “He couldn’t drive a minute without music.” Deceptively simple sentences like this abound, but in these few words the reader already has a certain measure of the man. Elsewhere a storm is described even more tersely: “The trees were ready to break.”
If the powerful simplicity of unadorned sentences like these are immediately apprehendable, the cumulative effect is more complicated. There are depths and layers to this novel that belie both the directness of its writing style and its relatively short length. Even if these chiselled phrases easily offer up their meaning, the book as a whole does not, which is one of its strengths. It is, in some ways, a gift that keeps on giving. One of the hallmarks of good literature is when it allows for both literal and metaphorical readings. While the narrative arc in itself is relatively straightforward, The Yogini invites many parallel and sometimes intertwining interpretations.
The Yogini can be most easily read as a feminist novel, which will come as no surprise to readers already familiar with the author’s work. Throughout this book the main focus is firmly on the female characters. Men are the supporting cast, either absent or in the background, or even the unsupportive cast, like Homi’s recalcitrant father, who has withdrawn from almost any interaction with his wife and daughter. When he is briefly hospitalised after a stroke it doesn’t substantially change the relationship he has with his family, though it does somewhat inconvenience Homi’s mother. “The thing is Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?” This self-centred disdain may well be hereditary, hinting that what is soon revealed as Homi’s general antipathy towards her fellow humans is a stance not entirely without source or cause. Elsewhere we read: “All our childhoods are actually forms of madness.” The novel is replete with observations like this, that can be savoured on their own, but also add nuance to the story.
Homi’s mother is one of the more complicated and interesting characters in this book. An imperious divorcee, she has another daughter from a previous marriage, a situation still unusual enough in modern India to raise eyebrows. Relations in this fractured family are fraught, and Homi hardly knows and rarely sees her half-sister. Despite the insinuated permissiveness, Homi’s mother holds some conservative views. More wedded to the family home than either of her inconvenient husbands, she vows never to sell or move. She is dubious about modernity and changing social mores, including the fact that childless Homi and Lalit live alone in an apartment block. “Do civilised people even live in rented flats?” she asks, while elsewhere she bemoans her jackfruit ripening, with no one to pluck them, in an image that is an open invitation to metaphorical interpretation.
Motherhood, and its various conjugations, is one of the main themes in The Yogini. The issue of single mothers is raised, for example, another topic that still borders on taboo in India. The question of free will is also dominant throughout the novel, but not just in terms of agency over one’s own existence, but also how what is still a deeply patriarchal society poses limits on individuals, particularly women. “What rights does a human being actually have over themselves?” Homi asks. “When does the state or society get to decide what should be done with my body or my mind, and therefore decree what I can or cannot do?”
The story verges at times on the hallucinatory. Homi sees a filth-covered man with matted hair and a beard, described as a hermit (though the word “sadhu” might have been more constructively used) who seems to stalk her, appearing outside her workplace, or at night on her balcony at home, or simply standing under a tree with a blue blanket over his shoulder. From early on in the novel, it is made clear that Homi understands that this individual, who addresses her as Empress, is only visible to her. Yet he exerts a hold on her that she cannot shake, and as the story progresses we begin to second-guess the original assertion.
In a pivotal scene, a palm reader tells Homi she has no empathy. Whether she recognises the truth of this, or the suggestion is too powerful to resist, either way the die is cast. “Your entire life is a product of your imagination, madam,” he tells her. “You are your own fate.” Yet she sees the mysterious hermit as an embodiment of her fate, fate being a subject explored at length, and yet another of the major themes dealt with in this thought-provoking novel, calling into question any notions of free will.
A brief reference to Greek mythology may, or may not, be an invitation to the reader to also view Homi’s odyssey (once seen, it’s hard to unsee) in terms of the roles fate and destiny play in that particular canon. Indeed, the reader more at ease with the classical opposition and conjunction of Apollonian and Dionysian dynamics than with Hindu mythology can fruitfully read this book through that optic as well, though both overlap.
Facing the lack of reciprocity in their marriage, Lalit leaves. Homi rents a room in a boarding house peopled by young professional career women, unmarried, yet living away from home, another nod to convention-defying mould-breaking feminism. When she returns to work, her manager schedules her to work nights, which he assures her will be less stressful than her usual day shift. While her colleagues are concerned for her mental health, Homi appears to herself, and to the reader, as perfectly self-possessed, if increasingly disillusioned with the world and her role in it. There is, nevertheless, a suggestion that Homi, subverting the trope of the unreliable narrator, may in some senses be seen as an unreliable character. This transition from day- to night-shift can perhaps be read as metaphorical. Once Homi has moved into the darkness she doesn’t want to leave it, even when her manager proposes that she reintegrate her previous role, working by day.
Another theme at the heart of this novel is the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, some elements of which can be read through the lens of psychogeography. Along with place, population and history are principal components of psychogeography. In the case of India, the span and scope of these elements are vast, with a depth present in few other places. Homi finds herself transported to Banaras (Varanasi). Quite how she gets there is unclear to her, or to the reader. One moment she is kissing a handsome photographer colleague in a Kolkata doorway, the next she is weeping inconsolably on the banks of the Ganges with no other possessions than the clothes she wears. Throwing herself on the kindness of a seemingly random stranger, Homi is taken in by a well-connected aristocratic courtesan, temporarily becoming part of the household, and enjoying some of the various benefits provided by coming under the matriarch’s protective wing.
If Kolkata is the scene for much of the novel, Banaras is one of its characters. Seen through the eyes of the protagonist, it is described in more vivid detail, almost to the point that a Western writer giving a similar description might be accused of exoticism. The Banaras that Bandyopadhyay describes is very much the one seen by tourists, pilgrims, and other short-term visitors.
The author’s choice to use the city’s traditional name “Banaras” rather than the modernised “Varanasi”, while rejecting “Calcutta” in favour of the updated transliteration “Kolkata”, hints that temporally she sees, or wishes the reader to see, the two cities differently. Or that might be just a quirk of the translation. Regardless, it is impossible to understate Banaras’s cultural significance, and consequentially its symbolism as leveraged in this book. In the psychogeography of India, if there is one place that carries the weight of tradition, rites, ritual and religion, with all the bells and smells, be they temple incense, or the roasting flesh of burning corpses, it is this city perched on the left bank of a bend in the Ganges. Banaras is arguably Hinduism’s most important site. To die in Banaras is to escape the wheel of samsara and the affliction of reincarnation and rebirth. Its associations with Shiva make it freighted with the destructive and transformative forces inherent in the unending cycle of birth, growth, and decay. Having mysteriously travelled upstream, Homi is figuratively transported back in time, her largely agnostic modernity juxtaposed with immutable tradition. Ceding the order of her previous life, Homi is both caught and willingly gives in to Banaras’s chaotic elemental power, ultimately becoming its instrument, in a transgressive abandonment of the weight of society’s expectations and norms.
Throughout the novel, we witness Homi transgressing cultural and societal norms. The directness of her sexual appetites may be disconcerting to certain readers. She acts both in constructive and self-destructive ways, which ties in with the Shaivite subtext of using Banaras as a stage, or perhaps as a representation of the creative and destructive forms of feminine energy associated with the Goddess Vishalakshi, who was married to Shiva against her wishes, and whose temple borders Banaras’s ghats. Again, this is a novel with a subtext that positively invites exploration.
One reading might be that self-realisation is not compatible with a career or marriage. Though it is never described or framed in these terms, another possible interpretation is that Homi’s lack of empathy, her hallucinations, and her bouts of memory loss are symptoms of some kind of pathology. It is not unreasonable to infer that she could be experiencing a nervous breakdown combined with episodic psychotic breaks, or suffering from a neurological impairment affecting her executive function. Though it wasn’t featured in the review copy, apparently published versions of this novel helpfully include an editorial preface outlining some of the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the story.
The only hiccup discernible to this reader was a mention of the Ganges being at low tide in Varanasi, which unlike the writer’s native Kolkata, is much too far inland for tides to have any effect on the water level, though this may have been a function of the translation, since the river fed by springtime Himalayan snowmelt does rise and fall with the seasons. Beyond this extremely minor quibble, The Yogini is a rewarding read, by a writer clearly at the top of her game. A powerful, provocative, and unsettling book that lingers long after reading.
How to cite: de Faoite, Marc. “Parallel and Intertwining Interpretations: Reviewing Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/14/the-yogini/.
Marc de Faoite was born in Dublin and has lived in Malaysia since 2007. His short stories, articles, and book reviews have been published both in print and online. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. He runs the editing and proofreading service, Global Scribe Solutions.