A World Elsewhere is Shanta Acharya’s first book of fiction. Set in the eastern state of Odisha in India, the novel chronicles the life of Asha, born after a prolonged pregnancy, into what appears a loving, privileged family. There are several books written about Odisha’s neighbour, West Bengal, and Calcutta in particular, while Odisha remains a not very often depicted place in English Literature. It is therefore refreshing to see sketches of life in this coastal state andOdia customs described in detail as the Guru family is introduced.
The Guru family are mostly academics who live in Cuttack. A large, close-knit family, its members observe their values and belief system even as tragedy strikes over the years. The author observes, ‘Home is not just bricks and mortar, it’s a vision of the world, a way of living, of finding one’s place in the universe.’ It is this sense of home that is portrayed and conveyed throughout the book, even as the protagonist leaves home and find herself quite lost. The four children are brought up with a certain value system and a routine, which they adhere to as they grow older. Complexity arises when they and especially Asha and Vikram the two older ones, face the world and its rather bewildering value systems after marriage, when other people become members of the family.The idyllic life style gets shattered.
The first part of the novel describes Asha’s childhood. She is the only girl in a family of three brothers, apple of everyone’s eyes, usually lost in her world of books and dreams. Here the reader is introduced to the developing relationship between the mother, Karuna, and her daughter. In fact, the first part of the book offers the reader Karuna’s perspective. Astrong and complex character, she is caught in the struggle between her desire to establish her own identity and her role as a mother in bringing up her daughter in a somewhat conservative environment. She is a mother of four, a much pampered wife, but towards the middle of the novel, the stresses and strains of married life appear between Karuna and her husband, Aditya. It is not wholly clear if it is the normal pressures of life, or inevitable differences in personality as Karuna was married whilst still very young.
Whilst Asha is encouraged to study, it is the performance of domestic household duties which is taken more seriously. Overwhelmed with her own responsibilities, Karuna tries to run the household with a rather strict baton and appears to be more unbending when it comes to the only girl in the family. When Asha takes up a job, there is some surprise a woman should want to work and earn her own upkeep. ‘You try being a girl for some time and then tell me how it is,’ the young Asha says at one point to her older brother, summing up the complexity of feelings she feels at that time, but unknown to her perhaps, at that time, she is speaking an universal truth. It is not easy to be a woman, especially if you are a thinking woman, born in a small conservative community, wherever in the world it might be.
It is in the second half of the book, when it clearly becomes Asha’s story, the book comes into its own. Desired by many, but choosing the worst of her suitors – Bathsheba like – Asha is trapped in a horrific marriage. Why do intelligent, independent, beautiful women often make the silliest of mistakes? Whether it is Hardy’s Dorset in the 1870s or Acharya’s Cuttack in the 1970s, the tribulations of women following from their marriages remain. The love Asha has been dreaming of and which she thinks she has found, turns cold, when she realizes that her husband is a callous man who has married Asha with the sole desire of breaking her spirt. ‘Asha worked away at her weaknesses. No one taught her how to protect herself from her strengths.’ It is these strengths that cause her husband to feel inferior and arousing his determination to prove himself by suppressing her in whatever ways he can think of. The diary entries of Asha as she slowly tries to understand why and how her life has suddenly gone so badly wrong adds poignancy to the overall tone of the book.
This is when the bigger questions arise: What is the identity of a woman? Can she, should she break away from unhappiness and if she does, where does she go next? What is the support offered by society when a woman’s intellectual strengths and spirit have been stripped from her? Her parents, even though loving and supportive, are a part of society’s fabric, and would rather not have their daughter back in the family home. If Asha had been an educated and financially independent woman what could have been her recourse?
But, in the end there is always hope; there is always a world elsewhere that you can explore and claim as your own. The novel ends with the hope of a new beginning for Asha. A World Elsewhere is a powerful statement about women’s identity and rights.
Mona Dash was born and educated in India, and came to London to work, in 2001. She writes fiction and poetry and her work has been published in various magazines internationally and anthologised widely. She has recently gained a Masters in Creative Writing, with distinction, from the London Metropolitan University.’ Dawn-drops is her first collection of poetry published by Writer’s Workshop, India. Her first book of fiction is represented by Redink Literary agency.