Girl Made of Gold by Gitanjali Kolanad

The debut novel of Bharatnatyam dancer, Gitanjali Kolanad is one of the most gripping thrillers I have read lately. The story starts off with a hunter finding a dead corpse near the jungle overlooking a holy village-temple. This is where the unputdownable story of a young Devadasi girl- Kanak starts unfolding.  Kolanad’s expertise in dance widens the scope of descriptive storytelling throughout the book where the narrators at length describe the temple and the village, their facets, the hidden symbolism, and of course their life. The story progresses through the narration of its main characters and traces the cause of the disappearance of young Kanak coupled with the mysterious appearance of a golden statue that looks exactly like her. Girl Made of Gold highlights the Devadasi culture at its peak; and how young girls are betrothed to God and lead a life pleasing men.  But sometimes, some things go wrong. . . . . . or right!

The story progresses as each character connected to Kanak mulls over her disappearance.  Subbu, the young nephew of the village priest is set to find his lost friend; the village priest tries to leverage the situation by turning it into a tourist attraction; Vallabendran, the seat of the aristocracy of the village, is believed to have been after Kanak and win her as his latest possession, shows indifference; and Ratna, Kanak’s elder sister with whom her relations are sour is engulfed in her own world to care any less for her.  A spectrum of characters has been introduced by Kolanad throughout the course of the novel and they have something to hide, which might contribute to her disappearance.

The novel brings to the forefront the ritual of Devadasi which has been traced predominantly in the Temple states of Southern India where a girl is married off to a God and is expected to lead a life of celibacy attending to the temple rituals and excelling in performing arts. However, with time, the ritual has seen many transformations and in some parts, it is being misused as a form of sex-slavery under the garb of a ritual. It is admirable that even in the 21st century, people take to such rituals whole-heartedly or forcibly and make the decisions for young girls. Of late, various criminal activities have also gotten intertwined with the practice of forced Devadasi bringing it under the radar of Human Rights. It makes the readers wonder if a girl really wants to live the life of a celibate?  Does she really want to be seen as the wife of a God? And what about pleasing men as it is considered that every man is a part of God and in doing so; she pleases her husband-God? With the ritual being the central plot of the story, the author compels the readers to think closely about it and yet does not define the moral grounds for the same.

Girl Made of Gold beautifully portrays female characters- their strengths, desires, and follies. It also highlights the way society looks at women. Kanak, talented, and attractive has only desired true love. But the world sees her as nothing more than a Devadasi, one who is meant to serve the Gods and men. Ratna lives the life of the ‘other woman’ as she is given away to Vallabendran, despite him being married. Devyani, the wife of Vallabendran is a dutiful wife and daughter-in-law, who knows of her husband’s illustrious nature and yet keeps quiet all through, serving him. Nagaveni, the matriarch of the Devadasi household holds true to the tradition without understanding how cruel she is to her girls. However, if she has been pushed towards this deep endless well of satisfying others from a young age; she finds it nothing wrong in choosing the same path for her girls.

Kolanad further talks about the innate nature of men and women.  The deepest desire of a man or a woman’s heart is to desire human company. To turn it into friendship, love, care, or lust is the decision of the individual. Kanak, in her life experienced friendship and care from her friend, love from her admirer, and lust from the greedy vultures in the society. Only Kanak’s choice and to some extent her fate makes the decision for her. But the most important point put forward here is that all individuals- men or women- have a choice; it is only a matter of time, their values, and their feelings that lead them to choose one or the other.

The inherent idea of superstition which is most prevalent in the rural communities takes shape firmly in the story. The sudden presence of a golden statue where the village folks were expecting Kanak to be, elevates her status; similar to real-life reportage of idols drinking milk in India which had surfaced a few years ago. Faith and belief are gifts to humanity, but there also exists a fine line between them and superstitions and irrationality. While many would instill faith in irrationality, others may pounce on the opportune moment to take advantage of it, just like the village priest did to lift his position and that of the village, ensuring enough donations from the arriving tourists.

Kolanad has brilliantly depicted the rural life, its nuances, and most importantly the depths of human relations through Girl Made of Gold. It is indeed a page-turner and every page comes with new revelations that are bound to leave the readers wanting for more. The complex web of relationship, intertwined within the members of the Devadasi community, the villagers and the aristocratic household has been kept intact, all the while progressing with the mystery of Kanak’s disappearance.

Girl Made of Gold is definitely a recommendation if you are searching for a good book to read, explore, or love the thriller genre and Indian writing. And I’ m sure you would finish the book and take time to contemplate its brilliance for a while. Indeed a thriller such as this is rare to find and one must not miss the opportunity to grab it FREE from the Juggernaut App. I personally hope that it hits the bookstores soon as paper/ hardback too.

No. of Pages: 256

Publisher: Juggernaut Books 

Available: Juggernaut App

Rating: 4/5

There’s Gunpowder in the Air: Manoranjan Byapari translated by Arunava Sinha

‘Dripping from Rajat’s bullet-riddled chest the blood took on the shape of India’s map as it flowed down the wall’

Set against the backdrop of  Bengal’s Naxalite movement in the ’70s, There’s Gunpowder in the Air is a daunting description of the activities within the four walls of a correctional home.  What laymen understand to be a place for robbers, murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and those who have gone against the law; the jails, are a world on their own. The daily happenings within the precincts are elaborately described in the novel.

It all begins with the imprisonment of five Naxal revolutionaries. Young educated men, who stay away from regular jail gossips but definitely have a philosophy and determination of their own to fight against the injustices brought upon them by feudalism. When a petty thief Bhagoban is sent in as a spy by the jailor to be amongst them, and to take note of their vicious plans, does the story pick up pace. However, what happens when Bhagoban starts having a change of heart upon meeting the young comrades?

The novel is complete with all the small nuances of prison life. The story of a bandaged ghost called Bandiswala keeps everyone on their feet, especially on full moon nights. In fact, the poor ghost was found easier to blame for anything that went awry rather than suspecting living men. His story has often been reiterated and discussed along with the lack of ritualistic initiatives to cordon off the evil spirit. If a wicked ghost wasn’t enough, stories of pilferages with the common rations and smuggling substances of abuse were not far behind. Gossips always pointed a finger towards ‘abc’ or ‘xyz’ including both jail guards and prisoners.  But hardly could anyone ever be caught in the act; and even if one was, there were ways to move out of trouble.

Amidst all the comic and witty turns, what Byapari explores the best throughout the novel is human emotions.  Hunger and poverty were always common reasons leading to one becoming a petty thief or a rogue. Outside the disciplined walls, each had their own families. Though they were allowed to meet them, many were disowned and many were shameful of their children being called ‘children of the criminal’. These pent up emotions along with severe ideological affiliations often led them to act on chance. Sometimes leading to their success and at other times, brutally crippling their will, for the rest of their lives or worse, curbing their lives itself.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air is just not the name of the novel, but holds much significance as a symbol of revolt, freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice and duty. Gunpowder is usually used for rifles, guns and the likes which are used for various illegal purposes upfront; but to me, it signifies rebellion – an act put together by many. Every individual taking part in the rebellion or its trial suffers from extreme emotional upheaval but their decision to take part in it or not; and to live up to the expectations of other comrades is their decision alone. Freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice; and duty are the results of the actions that one performs during a rebellion. Each individual holds great significance and their contributions can never be compared to one another.

Byapari weaves a lucid tale of Naxal prisoners in erstwhile Bengal fighting for their Rights and Motherland by radical means. But Rebellions owe as much to Fate as to the individuals who take part in it; and their success or failures are divided between both. Only time will tell the story of the Naxal prisoners and their Fate during their imprisonment.

Definitely a must-read whether in Bangla- Batashe Baruder Gandha-or in English to understand the psyche of the perceived rebels. The book is bound to raise questions about the pre-conceived notions about the Naxalities and make you revisit the era and re-interpret the ideologies in a new light.

No. of pages: 162

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on:Amazon/ Flipkart

Translated from: (Bengali) Batashe Baruder Gandha