Review of Meera Baindur's novel by Manish Sharma
Assistant Professor, Kurukshetra University
Nov 24, 2023
Book review of Meera Baindur's Sharvay (Speaking Tiger, 2023)
When it comes to women philosophers in India, Maitreyi, Gargi, Meera, and Sulabha come immediately to mind. However, these are little more than names, since their philosophies and lives are rarely discussed, let alone their teachings. We need stories of the women who devised wings, dared to take flight in the gusty winds of oppression, and sailed to otherwise forbidden heights. It is equally important to understand how they were bruised, how they grieved, and most importantly, how they failed. Sharvay is one such attempt that envisions the journey of a mixed caste (mishra varna) girl from the claustrophobic confines of a palace where she was born and brought up.
The novel presents the concrete circumstances of the socio-cultural and historical setting of south-central India in the 8th century. It depicts the life of a human being of that era from one of the most vulnerable sections of its society and explores what it might be like for her to become a philosopher. Besides presenting the obstacles on the way to becoming a philosopher, the writer also suggests what kind of position that philosopher would take in the given situations.
Spider Web around the Elephant Statue
This novel explores the socio-economic circumstances from the viewpoint of a mishra varna woman. It was the era of Buddhist Rinpoche Padmasambhava, Sankara, and Dantidurga's uncle and successor, King Krishna. The story takes us through several locations, starting in the palace and concluding in a little town called Kolahalpur after passing through jungles and towns like Amravati.
Born as a child of unknown parentage, Sharvay, the protagonist, was fostered by a woman in service of the Queen. She grew up alongside the haughty princess as herpeekadhari and socha-upcharika holding a silver spittoon in her hands for the princess to spit out her chewed betel leaves. Here, Sharvay shows first signs of curiosity as she wonders how the green leaves turn red upon chewing. However, her desire to learn was limited by her duties towards her mistress, the princess. She secretly stole knowledge as much as possible in circumstances that came her way accidentally. Since the pursuit and practice of knowledge were generally restricted. Even though all her faculties including her hands were growing more capable with time, she still wasn’t allowed to reach for anything beyond the spittoon. “Both Sharvay and Karmani grew within the palace like lengthening shadows in the setting sun”, writes Mansi (pen name used by Meera Baindur), depicting precisely the desolate condition of working women in a place.
In the very beginning of the novel, Sharvay is shown preoccupied by the sight of a spider building a web across the large carving of an elephant on one of the pillars. And she thought, “Can a spider trap an elephant in a spider web?” In this metaphor, we may see that Sharvay was wondering about her fate. Would she, a feeble spider with her delicate web, tame and fetter the giant, elephant-like oppression of regime and social structures? Can she overcome the overarching constraints with her little efforts?
The picture does not change much as Sharvay moves to a new town with the princess when the latter gets married, until she meets a fatal accident which proves to be a blessing in disguise. This accident freed her from the bondage of her mistress and the tethers of her previous identity as a mishra varna. She comes across an exciting chance to create a new identity, a new name, and a different role in life.
So now, Sharvay was Kumbaja, an upper-caste woman and because she now found a foster father in a Vaidya, she was a healer and medicinal practitioner. Thereon, she finds a friend till her last in Bakumi, a partner in Madhavakara, and a guide in Tara (a Buddhist Bhikkhuni). The community of healers dwelling in the forest, of which her foster father was a part, saw frequent visits by travellers, healers, and philosophers. In the favoured social circumstances, she could chase after her long-drawn curiosities, although not without the challenges of being a woman.
Gradually Sharvay learns and grows bold and ultimately starts to emit what she has absorbed. She embarks on a journey that tries to free knowledge from the stranglehold of a few and make it ubiquitous.
Quest for Self-discovery
In this novel, you'll be enthralled by a woman's bravery in defying all social conventions to venture into the uncharted realm of knowledge. You might discover that she can still get support from other women and forge an affiliation with them even under the direst of circumstances. This is the story of a woman's struggle, bravery, uncertain future, and release from the shackles of prevailing socioeconomic and cultural conventions.
Sharvay embarks on a journey of philosophical development and lives her life with various identities and names to find integrity eventually. In the novel the issue of identity is raised when Sharvay wonders, “Why am I called 'peekadhari?'… Am I a person who does the work or has my work itself become me?" (Mansi, 2023, pp 98-99) No philosophy can remain untouched by the social, economic, and cultural circumstances of its time, rather these circumstances of the philosopher's life shape her philosophy. I have attempted to view this novel written by Mansi based on this thought. The beauty of the novel lies in its ability to depict the philosophical viewpoint through the protagonist's decisions and actions taken in different situations instead of relying on lengthy arguments.
This novel will give you a taste of the famous philosophical debates called Shastrarthas and the influence of their patronage on their workings both from the public and the kings. If Shastrarthas were organized by public funding, they were under the pressure of being entertaining. However, if they were funded by kings’ money then they were influenced by the king’s religious or philosophical preference.
The author expresses curiosity about having heard the names of numerous women philosophers in India's history but is unable to access their concrete lives and philosophical ideas. Hence, it becomes impossible to create a clear thought about their life choices and philosophies. In this novel, the author attempts to portray a clear image of one such female philosopher; how they would have dealt with the discourses and situations of their time.
Freedom versus Social Structure
At times, this novel reminds us of Sartre’s notion of freedom and suggests that humans always have the choice to be free. Let’s look at this line of the novel, “Every time she was called Peekadhari, she repeated 'Sarvamedhini' to herself. She wanted a name that described who she was and did not just represent what she did.” (Mansi, 2023, p.100) This way of thinking implies that, despite being in more impoverished circumstances, a person can overcome them by having the proper kind of self-image. In another instance, the debate between social conditions and the so-called spiritual awakening is raised in a very subtle way when the author comments on the working conditions of Sharvay, the peekadhari, and her adaptation to these conditions. The author writes:
She had learned long ago that being mindful in these moments only caused her to be upset and angry. It was best to be mindless, except as needed to make her body obey other people's words. She had trained her mind to stay in an indifferent state. (Mansi, 2023, p.40)
These lines hint towards what Erich Fromm calls 'the pathology of normalcy' which suggests that there are certain aspects in every society where pathological behaviour is normalized. In the above situation, being aware would be problematic for Sharvay as her working conditions do not allow it. Thus, while accepting the will to be free, the novel does not emphasize the unlimited capability of human freedom but rather suggests the limitations of freedom by the given choices.
Moral Dilemma: Truth or Freedom?
In this novel, along with accompanying Sharvay on her philosophical journey, you also set out on a philosophical journey of your own, reflecting on your obstacles, readiness, and mysteries. Numerous circumstances in her life would shock you and cause you to ponder. For me, this moment comes when Sharvay had to camouflage as an upper caste woman and as a man to participate in a debate on the truth and metaphysics. Let’s see her dilemma, when she talks to herself while hiding her caste from her saviours, "Should she tell these people everything and go back to her old life? Or should she be free now and take her steps into a new life, away from the limits of her past?" (Mansi, 2023, p.103)
At this juncture, philosophical debates appear to be nothing more than a farce. It awakens us to our lack of ability to hear the truth. Many times, we turn a common phenomenon into a mystery by giving it a mythological shape and tend to forget the truth in that mystery. In this condition, Sharvay had to choose between truth or freedom and she chose freedom over truth as the society was not ready to listen to her truth.
Dialogue with the Author
The author's philosophical vision can be inferred from various instances in this novel. For example, the author wants to portray a picture of a woman philosopher, but for this work, she tries to raise those philosophical thoughts in the mind of the reader through her story. Although, many times, as a reader, it came to my mind that it would have been better if the philosophical debate initiated in the novel had been longer. The novel's plot implicitly raises philosophical questions at many points. It occasionally reminds us of Sophie’s World and suggests the possibility of a similar book in the context of Indian philosophy.
When it comes to the author's philosophical assumptions, she has been very explicit on the significance of Apta Pramana but not limited to some special ones. She has also emphasized the body's epistemological significance numerous times. In this context, the author has acknowledged the significance of Ayurveda, which emphasizes observation as an epistemological tool. Besides, the author seems to value observation and analysis over philosophy's speculation. In addition, she believes that the kind of philosophical speculation, that reduces people to objects, is the cause of social inequity. In this novel, she investigates the possibility of the philosophy that places the human body and experience at its core and that may be developed based on the reality that each person encounters.
If I examine the author's presumptions regarding the freedom of women, her picture of women's independence with the family appears challenging. She thus presents Sharvay's figure as being more independent without family. In addition, despite emphasizing the importance of the body, the author did not highlight the impact of pregnancy on a woman's life, though it is a significant part of a woman's physical life. One explanation for this would be that she considers this trait to be a weakness in women. I also find the kind of comradeship portrayed in the novel among the women, especially between Sharvay and Bakumi seems quite imaginary and imposed from our times. I believe this kind of comradeship was absent at that time even nowadays. This is the main reason, women have not been able to become a political pressure group in Indian political discourses yet.
This novel was also interesting to me because it portrays a vivid picture of the historical cities of Central and South India which are completely new to me. It brings up some historical characters that I was unaware of, being a North Indian. It provides detailed pictures of the cities, their economies, artists, and artworks. There is an unknown thrill while reading this novel, especially the character of the Buddhist Bhikhuni, Tara, who has been presented in a very mysterious and attractive manner. The character of the protagonist, Sharvay, is also heartfelt and real. It has not been portrayed in an unnecessarily romantic style. This is the reason why the novel has been quite successful in highlighting the inhumanity prevalent in the society of that time.
This work will be thought-provoking and interesting to philosophy students, anyone who is interested in issues about women, and to the readers of historical fiction. This book may make you reflect on a variety of subjects, including the veracity of existentialist philosophy, freedom, and potentiality, questions of identity and integrity, the advantages and disadvantages of public and private funding, etc.