Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta
2020, Pan Macmillan India
“Who am I, Father?” are the first words spoken by our protagonist, Ahalya, the title of book one in Koral Dasgupta’s five-part retelling of the Panch Kanyas of Hindu Mythology. For those unfamiliar, the Panch Kanyas is an epic originally written in Sanskrit, in which the names of five women—Ahalya, Kunti, Draupadi, Mandodari, and Tara—are believed to dispel sins upon recitation. In this first of the five-part series, Dasgupta introduces readers to a young girl, Ahalya, born of Brahma, the Father of Creation. Immediately we are met with a crisis of identity as Ahalya’s soul watches Brahma create what will be her earthly body. Like the child she still is, Ahalya seeks answers from everyone but herself—Brahma and the River, the Rain and the Mist. But it is the Mist, Ahalya’s maternal figure, who comes closest to setting the trajectory of the novel and what Ahalya must ultimately learn for herself: “‘He [Brahma] can only create your body, not your birth chart.”
Not long after these words, readers witness the first of many transformations Ahalya must undertake in order to discover who she is. Still in the form of a spirit, Ahalya enters the cave where Brahma has finished creating her new body, so that she may, according to Brahma, “Acquire wisdom and apply it” during her time on earth. Ahalya describes her new body as perfect before being instructed by Brahma to merge with her new form:
“Father commanded me to lie atop her. I obeyed. His eyes glittered with ecstasy as I slowly merged with the tough exteriors of his sculpture. Almost immediately the wood softened and gave way to smooth, glistening skin. The nostrils breathed. The fingers quivered. The skin perched on to the newfound nerves and muscles as blood streamed through the veins. I felt the fascinating beats of my heart. A drop of tear trickled down my eye with the complex and painful consciousness of formally owning a body, though it lasted for no more than a few blinks. I sat up. Long, silky hair swept all over my back like waves.”
Of course, within seconds of this transformation, Ahalya learns what it means to have a body made flesh, the ramifications of living in a physical encasing assigned to her at birth:
“A strange fear of facing the unknown engulfed me. Fear, an emotion my soul was alien to but my body experienced within moments of its birth.”
This fear of uncertainty follows Ahalya as she’s introduced to Gautam, the partner given to her by Brahma, as they travel from the safety of Heaven to Earth, where the two are instructed to live out the rest of their lives together. Unlike Ahalya, Gautam is resistant to change, to transformation; he remains an impenetrable force as Ahalya does her best to find beauty in an unwelcoming environment, surrounded by those who barely acknowledge her presence. We see this reflected in the care she gives to the hut she shares with Gautam, as well as her loneliness in being the only one willing to change:
“As much as the plain smooth walls and floor brought me the joy of renovating from ugly to beauty, equally was it frustrating. There was no one I could invite to feel the difference, to experience the change and to appreciate the transformation.” Later, in the same chapter, Ahalya admits that she’s not particularly eager to talk to Gautam herself, who has barely acknowledged her existence upon leaving Heaven for Earth, creating a dark tension in the hut they share together. Ahalya is treated as though her very existence is an inconvenience, a distraction from Gautam’s ultimate wish of freeing himself from his “perishable body that limited him within the scope of the Earth,” while Ahalya confesses in the privacy of her thoughts that she “just needed [her] existence validated.” It is in these moments of vulnerability where Ahalya’s pain becomes more and more familiar: what we see in Ahalya is a willingness to grow, to transform, and in Gautam, a heart that remains stagnant. Ahalya might not like all of the changes bestowed upon her right away—from her spirit free in heaven to her mortal body on earth, from her independent nature to being paired with Gautam—but she is always the first to adapt, to grow, to make the absolute most of her situation, while Gautam and those around her remain firmly planted in the familiar.
But what Dasgupta does so brilliantly here is acknowledge how isolating such a transformation can be, even if, like Ahalya, one accepts the change that befalls them. It’s the lack of validation that hurts Ahalya, that makes her feel isolated, not the transformation itself.
Eventually, Dasgupta gives us what Ahalya and her audience so want: for Gautam to grow and change with her (of course, it is a temporary change, as those familiar with the tale of Ahalya already know, but for those new to Hindu Mythology, it’s a welcome relief from the painful tension that has been brewing between the two). Having been instructed by Brahma to marry Ahalya after accidentally seeing her close to naked on the banks of Mandakini (they were not married before, having been assigned by Brahma as unwed partners to live out their life on Earth together as opposites, learning from each other what the other lacked), Gautam begins to adapt to his newfound married life. We, alongside Ahalya, begin to see the light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel as Gautam finally begins to grow with her—taking care of her while she sleeps, “pulling down branches of tall trees from which [Ahalya] wish[ed] to pluck flowers” and scaring off snakes on their walks to the neighboring villages, knowing Ahalya’s fear of the reptile. Gautam begins to allow himself moments of vulnerability, opening up to Ahalya about his own wants and wishes, including the aforementioned physical limitations of his body.
It is this meeting of minds that makes the meeting of their physical desires come to fruition, and we witness the two finally connecting in the way that Ahalya has so longed for (unlike their first physical encounter in their hut, a disastrous affair for them both, Gautam having no understanding of a woman’s body, leaving Ahalya in physical pain and Gautam, distressed with humiliation). But this coming together of bodies is what leads to their inevitable doom. Upon waking, Ahalya discovers that Gautam has gone missing. Instead, she finds her abandoned sari, gifted to her from Gautam, and feels a foreboding kinship in the transformation both she and her sari have simultaneously undergone: “The beautiful mustard and beetroot-violet border looked pale at this hour, perhaps warning me of lost glamour and glory. The sari hadn’t remained the same, nor did I.”
Here, too, is another transformation, but unfortunately, not the last change Ahalya must undergo in order to be seen and validated by those around her. As the novel progresses, Ahalya tracks down Gautam, who accuses her of ruining his life and leading him into earthly temptations with pleasures of the physical. Gautam curses Ahalya, declaring that he was possessed by Indra—“King of Gods” and “The source of emotions, attachments, [and] responses”—and that he would not have slept with her otherwise. In his rage, he curses Ahalya, damning her to a life where she can neither feel love nor seek it:
“Through heat and rain and chill I am meant to stand, attending to the passage of time but affected by none, as one season follows the other and the blooms change colours.” Not only has Gautam stripped Ahalya of the most basic human impulses, but here we see the roles reversed on such a painful, illuminating scale. Ahalya is forced to stay stagnant (forced, in many ways, to live as Gautam lives) while simultaneously made to watch the world change and transform around her, “reduced to the existence of a rock.” However, in her own unique way, Ahalya still has the upper hand. The curse Gautam bestows upon her is the opposite of everything Ahalya stands for, and yet, she still manages to find the silver lining, for in Gautam’s rage, he ironically gives her everything he’s ever wanted:
“His curse had not only taken from me my strength to love and seek love but also taken from him his richest treasure and bestowed it on me—the faculty of detachment!”
It is through this realization that Ahalya remains strong, and it is this sense of self—still intact within the depths of Gautam’s curse—that finds Ahalya her happy ending: when she is seen and recognized by Rama, the human incarnation of Vishnu:
“With Rama’s reconciliation the world’s perceptions would change almost immediately. Rama’s resolve to stand before me in person, allowing me to take a complete look at his earthly form, would invite the world to break its mental blocks.”
It is the power of validation that sets Ahalya free, Rama’s “recognition of [her] truth” that allows Ahalya to “touch and feel again” to “perceive and reciprocate.” Ahalya’s story is one of growth and transformation, yes, but the brilliance of Dasgupta’s retelling is not just within the confines of that transformation itself, but rather, the importance of being seen, validated, and loved as you are. It is through this recognition, as well as her own strength, that Ahalya eventually finds the peace she so deserves.
DIANA CLARK is a 2019 alumni of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where they graduated with their MFA in fiction. They are the recipient of the LGBTQ+ writer scholarship for The Muse & The Marketplace 2019, a partial scholarship recipient to Sundress Academy for the Arts, and a 2020 candidate for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Their interests include queer lit, fairy tales, and retellings.