Vanessa R Sasson’s debut novel Yasodhara and the Buddha takes the life of Gautama Buddha, the stuff of scripture and legend, and lays out a story about love between him and his wife. And a fascinating story it is, too, about ego, love, and renunciation as love.
A satisfying journey into history and Buddha’s quest for the truth about life, the novel goes further and offers a sympathetic insight into Yasodhara’s suffering, her love for Buddha, and the idea of love itself. It is a tender portrait of a woman growing up; much of it resonates with the contemporary experiences of womanhood not least in reflections on appearances and presentability. In one scene, Sasson brings to life the protagonist’s carefree attitude towards her looks and her mother’s frustration with that attitude:
She plunged me back into the water, rinsing away the dead skin she had just torn from my body and retrieved me in time for the next step in the unforgiving process. My head was a nest of tangles. She pulled her fingers through my hair repeatedly, picking the strands apart and making disappointed clicking sounds with her tongue each time she came across something that did not belong on my head. I squirmed and screeched, but she ignored me. She had no patience for the way I treated my hair.
Sasson has fashioned a new name for the genre: hagiographical fiction.
Yasodhara’s journey into womanhood—the awkwardness of dressing up, taboos around menstruation, painful childbirth, post-natal depression (worse for her because Siddhattha leaves without meeting her and their son), motherhood, widowhood, and fear of rape—make the novel notable for the empathy it shows towards one woman who lived millennia ago.
Yasodhara goes through different emotions of anger and rancor. She realizes her husband is socially dead. Among her responses to his departure is a contemplation on shackles:
We worked through them, one bangle after the next. She massaged my hand until my thumb was folded as far into my palm as possible, and then we squeezed them off, one at a time. It was a long and painful process, my wrists and thumbs becoming cramped, my skin becoming bright red. I was learning the hard way that shackles don’t fall by themselves.
But the novel transcends a narrow interpretation of shackles, one which otherwise might have been rooted in a feminist critique alone. Yasodhara undergoes a transformation in her idea of love. It is a take on Buddha but it is also an argument that renunciation and love are not all that different from each other. Yasodhara’s questions remain unanswered—Siddhattha’s walking away does not make sense, well, until it does. That’s the moment Yasodhara’s journey into love and renunciation begins. Here is how Sasson gives expression to Siddhattha’s reason for leaving:
“Because Yasodhara, I was too attached,” he repeated patiently. “I loved you and Rahula for my own self. I had to learn to let go of that kind of love if I was going to find the answers I was looking for. I did not want to love you more than everyone else. I wanted to learn the kind of love that went beyond individual preferences. The kind of love that did not come from suffering. I could not find that while staring at you.”
The novel, as much about Buddha as it is about Yasodhara, is not a vituperative account; it stays subtle and does not retrofit contemporary feminist consciousness on its subject.
Sasson has fashioned a new name for the genre she has attempted: hagiographical fiction. But its treatment of gender and love aside, the novel’s form is of interest as well. Sasson’s exploration of Buddha’s quest for other versions of truth requires her to handle all kinds of realities: history, legend, prophecy, and the supernatural. Yasodhara and the Buddha is splendid for conjuring visions of floating, of gods and a tree watching over Buddha, of doors of flowers in the forests, or of love walking in the form of a man as it speaks about human ways of comprehending life.