The classic debate of whether our lives are determined by self-will or fate is given a provocative twist in the latest novel from Indian author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.
Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, the novel kicks off in contemporary Calcutta, where Homi, a high-flying TV producer, has just married her similarly successful boyfriend. The couple live in an expensive apartment and are blissfully in love. Barring a few unsupportive relatives, the fairytale seems complete until, one night, Homi has an unpleasant encounter with a tramp outside her office.
This dirty vagrant, who appears in the guise of a holy man, tells Homi that he is her “fate”. She runs away but he begins to stalk her, appearing in unexpected, and occasionally inconvenient, places. Homi becomes intellectually and sexually obsessed by the apparition, leading her to question notions of pre-destination and her purpose in life. As her marriage and career break down, she finds herself unaccountably removed to the sacred city of Benares. Here, as a guest in the house of an aged courtesan, she encounters her fate in a grisly (and literal) climax.
Just how Homi arrives in Benares is never explained. This apparent plot hole is arguably intentional if, as in her previous novel Abandon, Bandyopadhyay is writing to shock rather than satisfy literary convention. In that novel, she used the taboo of a mother abandoning her child to demonstrate the depth of sacrifice necessary to satisfy the creative drive. In The Yogini, she also explodes conventional wisdom to show the penalty incurred in self-discovery: forsaking a successful career and loving marriage.
Fortunately such sensationalism is not an end in itself. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Bandy proceeds to deliver social satire and philosophical musings with equal aplomb. The first few chapters effectively skewer middle-class aspirations by showing desirable jobs in banking and media to be unfulfilling. Marriage also gets the same treatment with the example of Homi’s mother who married for money and, once widowed, was married in turn for her money. Familial duty, meanwhile, is shown to be unrewarding and relationships are dismissed as being “nothing but two individuals who had become victims of the same circumstance”.
Bandyopadhyay’s real insights are delivered when Homi considers the consequences of events of her life being controlled by destiny rather than herself:
If those of us … who don’t believe in God or fate, who know and have known that our relationship with ourselves develops slowly, through our everyday experiences—if we suddenly discover that none of these experiences happens by choice, that everything is predetermined, that happiness and suffering are all predestined, then what attachment can we have to our own identity?
The final test comes when the dying sister of her host in Benares asks Homi to kill her. Homi knows, from having her palm read previously by a fortune-teller, that there is no empathy or attachment predicted in her lifespan. Yet she sums up the determination to strangle the woman to death, thus releasing her from pain. In doing so, she seems to override the dictates of fate—although the question of whether this action was independent choice, or providence, or a combination of both, is left open.
Even more intriguing is the mystery of to whom the book’s title refers. In Indian mythology, the Yogini were female deities venerated particularly by followers of Tantra who worshiped the yoni (vulva). Able to both nourish and kill (especially demons), they represent feminine energy in both creative and destructive forms.
There are plenty of candidates, including Homi’s unpleasant mother and the many courtesans Homi befriends at the novel’s end. As a murderer, Homi herself also fits the bill. Certainly the tramp affords her a superior status by calling her “Empress”. If this is the case, it leads to a depressing conclusion. What chance is there for mere mortals if fate can control even supreme beings like Homi? The only hope in this Pandora’s box is the idea that mercy can tip the balance.
Indeed, this seems to be the clearest theme in a novel which offers the possibility for many different interpretations. Homi appears to progress from selfish independence to a state of happy beneficence via performing an action for someone else. For all the other little goddesses out there, perhaps a dash of altruism wouldn’t go amiss.
Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.