- Koral Dasgupta, Ahalya, Pan Macmillan, 2020. 204 pgs.
- Koral Dasgupta, Kunti, Pan Macmillan, 2021. 203 pgs.
In the preface to her 1919 anthology Short Stories, Mrs (Srimati Swarna Kumari Devi) Ghosal wrote, “Yet those who know [a Hindu woman] can realise how sweet and noble she is. Her timidity only enhances her simple grace, like that of the gentle gazelle. Her modesty and simplicity, her intense devotion to her husband and his people, her self-effacement and self-sacrifice, and her constant reliance on a Higher Power,—all these rare virtues, as found in her.” It was this short passage that provided me, a reader with no background in South Asian literature, a bare-bones understanding that I needed to scratch the surface of how powerful Koral Dasgupta’s Ahalya and Kunti are.
Ahalya and Kunti are the first two books in Dasgupta’s Sati series, which retells the stories of five exalted women (collectively known as the Pancha Kanyas) from Hindu mythology. Ahalya is the daughter and most precious creation of Brahma, the all-knowing creator of the cosmos. At the beginning of Ahalya, Brahma sends his daughter to Earth and gives her the imperative to “explore [her]self…. Find that magnificence within the mundane … [and discover the] science of life.” The sage Gautam accompanies her. As time goes on, Ahalya discovers the small beauties that surround her, muses on the nature of motherhood even as she is technically motherless, and explores her own burgeoning sexuality. These simple acts and explorations test the bounds of the predominantly patriarchal society she occupies, wherein the quest for a higher spirituality calls for strict control over one’s emotional desires and indriya, the senses.
Sanctity, I learnt from the Mist later, is a metaphysical way of remaining pure, godly. Pure at heart, pure in means and ends, pure by body, pure by faith. She called it “Sati”.—Ahalya, from Ahalya
Kunti is the queen of Hastinapur. She is married to King Pandu but in love with Indra.
Indra, the King of Gods. The one who brings rains to Earth. The representative of five indriyas governing the minds of humans. A provocation. An unholy invitation. The source of emotions, attachments, responses.—Gautam, from Ahalya
We meet Kunti as an academically voracious child. We follow her on a journey dotted with encounters with gods, adolescent motherhood, a detached marriage and, to round it all off, an expansion of physical and metaphysical realities.
In Dasgupta’s two novels, the ways in which the titular leads subvert Ghosal’s traditional image of the Hindu woman are endless. Neither Ahalya nor Kunti are timid women. Ahalya has a natural, soft grace about her, but Kunti’s grace is akin to that of a crouching lioness flicking her tail as she considers her prey. Both Ahalya and Kunti show devotion to their husbands, and yet they each have clear desires for someone outside of their arranged marriages. Though the narration and dialogue, while lyrical and poetic, does sometimes create a distant atmosphere, we see Ahalya and Kunti nonetheless experience the full spectrum of human emotions—wonder, longing, grief, passion, and the like—throughout their stories. The line between mythical, idealised figure and woman becomes blurred.
The feminism that Ahalya presents is a subtle kind. Ahalya wants to experience life to the fullest, even as her commune and setting seem determined to keep her from doing so. One could ask why Ahalya does not pursue a different path to the one seemingly assigned to her, but that would be bypassing what this retelling attempts to do. The ways in which Ahalya navigates the expectations and restrictions imposed upon her reveal how integral small resistances are within the lives of those with limited agency, and how these small resistances can affect small change within societies. Moreover, practically speaking, Ahalya may have been reluctant to abandon her only source of social support—a realistic barrier that has echoes in modern society.
Furthermore, rather than completely reinventing the roles women play in society (and in the original myths), Ahalya works to shift, reframe, and uplift existing, traditional roles.
A mother is another name for unyielding, aggressive power. She is the embodiment of indulgence and restraint. She is the keeper, the protector. She restricts to keep all harm away. She beholds the baby with her softness, yet forms a tough cast around it to keep intruders at bay. She is the first teacher starting the learning process in confinement, by sharing the system of body and life even before the baby is born. She is the form of knowledge that results from reflex.—Brahma, from Ahalya
Kunti takes things even further by calling into question the secondary roles women had been relegated to throughout Ahalya. For example, Kunti’s ability to truly see those around her makes her the secret strategist behind Hastinapur’s success. It’s not quite a call for the destruction of the gender binary and static, gendered roles (perhaps in a future instalment), but it’s at least a call for the acknowledgement of a more multidimensional kind of femininity.
Next, I would be remiss if I did not note that Ahalya and Kunti are completely unflinching and unashamed in their depictions of female pleasure and intercourse. These scenes took me by surprise, but in retrospect, their inclusion aligns well with the narrative that Dasgupta works to tell. One could read these unapologetically written scenes as an insistence that surrendering to indriya and discovering one’s desires is not truly something sinful but rather something to revel in.
Let us now talk about writing style. Compared to Ahalya, Kunti is written in a more stream-of-consciousness style. A few parts of the novel read as disjointed, perhaps to generate suspense, perhaps to reflect Kunti’s emotional state and potential mental compartmentalization as she wrestles with the difficult decisions she must make. Readers who enjoy modernist literature may well appreciate this narrative technique.
Lastly, there are many figures and events from Hindu mythology to keep track of throughout the two stories. Dasgupta provides footnotes for some but not all, and I did not always stop to look up the names unknown to me. Thus, for readers who are unfamiliar with Hindu lore, Ahalya and Kunti are books that invite, at minimum, a second reading— one to delve through plot and themes, and another to absorb the multitude of rich references to Hindu mythology. Ahalya and Kunti are perfect for those who are curious about Hindu lore reimagined with a South Asian feminist lens.
How to cite: Phu, Sharyn. “The Women Behind the Hindu Myths: Koral Dasgupta’s Ahalya and Kunti.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 26 May 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/05/26/koral-dasgupta
Sharyn Phu is a Yale-China Fellow and Visiting Tutor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has written for Synergy: The Journal for Contemporary Asian Studies, The Yale Literary Review, and Vietcetera. She received her BA in East Asian Studies from Yale University.