Dedicated to the deity | Book Review – Breaking Free by Vaasanthi

A chilling chronicle of the ancient devadasi system that continues to snuff out the future of many young girls even today

Dedicated to the deity | Book Review – Breaking Free by Vaasanthi
As a teenaged girl, Kasturi earns the praise of her guru who trains her as a Bharatanatyam dancer.

By Faizal Khan

Nearly a century ago, the ruling British passed a law to end the marriage of minor girls to gods, a brutal tradition practised across India for centuries. The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934, led to similar bans in a number of states to end gender injustice. The laws, however, have not eliminated the devadasi system, which continues even today in a lethal mix of caste and gender oppression. Tamil writer Vaasanthi sounds an alarm about modern society’s failure to stop the crime against women in her novel, Breaking Free.

Translated from its original, Vittu Viduthalaiyagi, first published in Tamil a decade ago, Breaking Free is set in pre-independence India. Happening in the then Madras Presidency, the novel tells the story of two families born into the devadasi system. The main characters are Kasturi and Lakshmi, the children of these two families. The novel traces the journey of the two young girls with opposing views of their surroundings and future. The plot of the novel tapers into the present day, an astute literary device set up by the author to turn the focus to contemporary society’s unwillingness to end the criminal practice of devadasis.

As a teenaged girl, Kasturi earns the praise of her guru who trains her as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Lakshmi’s movements are not so supple, something that invites blows to her body. The violence makes Lakshmi think of continuing her school education and enter college (women were banned from colleges then) and becoming a lawyer to protect girls like her. While Lakshmi is able to persuade her father Periya Mirasu to support her education (Lakshmi’s mother Thulasi is not legally married to Periya Mirasu, who has another wife and children), Kasturi goes on to marry the deity of her local temple and become a temple dancer.

“Who else will marry a dasi? She is marrying the deity,” responds a man in the crowd when someone enquires about the bridegroom on Kasturi’s wedding day at the temple. Kasturi’s life as a temple dancer is a symbol of the savagery of a system that not only pushes the lower caste into submission but also perpetrates atrocities on its members in various forms. As Lakshmi goes to college (the first woman to do so in the Madras Presidency) and Kasturi into the depths of human suffering, the country faces the first protests for its freedom from British rule. There are cries of Vande Mataram and songs of Tamil poet and social reformer Subramania Bharati reverberate in the streets. Lakshmi likes the powerful, musical chants of the protesters —“We salute the mother of our great land.”

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The author, a prolific writer known for analysing social crises, especially gender injustice, builds the narrative by addressing the deep-rooted problems and the difficult solutions. Lakshmi’s life as a devadasi, which often forces her to become slaves to her masters—the rich and the powerful—is in sharp contrast to that of Kasturi, who is determined to find a solution to families like hers through education. On the other hand, the freedom struggle that gives a voice to the lower caste, underlines a social churning along with education to achieve equality and justice for the poor. Kasturi’s inner strength gives her character a commitment that matches Lakshmi’s quest for ending the sufferings of young girls. But for the author, the real call is for an end to the devadasi system in a country whose freedom rests on the shoulders of the millions who fought for its independence in the last century.

Book details

Breaking Free

Vaasanthi

Translated by

N Kalyan Raman

HarperCollins

Pp 343, Rs 399

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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