Arpita Mandal

The Indian novels written in English that Western readers are most familiar with have been referred to as “the sari and mango novels” by writer Rana Dasgupta — the kind of works where the notion of an “authentic India” is conveyed through orientalist and exoticized milieus and metaphors. At the other end of the spectrum are writers such as Aravind Adiga who write about the metropolitan India of today and its troubled citizens who strive to compete in a liberally burgeoning economy—a genre of writing termed as “darker and messier terrain” by Dasgupta. Despite the differences in themes, both kinds of works communicate their “Indianness” through the English language; a colonial irony and reality that is critically examined by Meenakshi Mukherjee in her article “The Anxiety of Indianness: Our Novels in English.” But the language issue is not as problematic as the fact that Indian authors in English have often been accused of trying to create a world that is palatable to the white or Western reader. Mukherjee notes that the India created in such a novel tends to homogenize and flatten differences though the reality is pluralistic and heterogeneous.

In the echo chamber of these debates over the Indian novel in English, Champa Bilwakesh’s work, Desire of the Moth, serves up yet another dimension. Due to the historical nature of its content, the work can be classified neither as a “sari-mango novel” nor as a “metropolitan novel of dark terrain.” While most Indian novels written in English usually make use of metropolitan locations such as Delhi or Mumbai, Bilwakesh differs by setting her work in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. By making use of this seldom-represented place as her setting, Bilwakesh invites her reader into the complex and rich artistic and cultural heritage of Southern India. 

Over the backdrop of colonial India fighting for its independence, the setting is limited to detailing the practices of the agraharam, a Brahmin community. Desire of the Moth effortlessly establishes its “Indianness,” both by inundating the work with sounds and images of the classical south Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam, and music from the flute and the mridangam, while also plunging the reader into the simmering tensions between tradition and people within this small Southern community. The unique aspect of this novel lies not in the location per se, urban versus rural but rather in the setting of the worlds of the devadasis, a woman dedicated to the religious temple life but through the practice of music and dance, and the agraharam, a world with its own rules.

Though the Indian independence movement forms the historical background, Bilwakesh also offers an alternate history of groups of people who are bound to the time and tradition of the country. The author sheds light on marginalized and ill-treated Brahmin widows who are pushed to live on the margins because of draconian religious dictates. Her work offers a critique of practices used in the name of tradition to oppress women and projects a feminist re-imagination of a marginalized group of peoples.

Desire of the Moth borrows its title from English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “One Word is Too Often Profaned.” While Shelly’s poem is composed of two stanzas originally, it is the second stanza that serves as a thematic framework for the novel. In his poem, Shelley pointed to a natural longing, almost an inherent need for the moth to desire the star and for the night to want the morrow even at the expense of self-annihilation in order to fulfill its longing. It is in this desperate longing that Bilwakesh juxtaposes her protagonist, Sowmya, a widow whose life is cast in darkness by the time and tradition that binds her. Like the moth’s attraction to the light, Sowmya’s desires to live freely and happily prove to have unhappy consequences. However, just as the night has to pass away in order to let day come, Sowmya, too, has to leave her old life behind in order to live her new one. While Shelley’s poem ends on a sober note of impossible yet natural desires, Bilwakesh offers her readers meaningful and alternate possibilities to attain “devotion[s] to something afar.”

The novel can alternately be read as a bildungsroman wherein Sowmya who is married and subsequently widowed at the tender age of 10, comes of age. As a young Brahmin widow in a conservative village, she is expected to live the life of a widowed woman; a living limited mostly to biological functions of the body. The strict agraharam system forcibly demands a nun-like life from the widow that not only includes coercive chastity but also the wearing of plain white clothing. Moreover, in order to dissuade the widowed woman from feeling desirable and to discourage others from sexually desiring her, the agraharam mandates that the widow have her head shaved in order to mark her as one who is untouchable. These strict measures are undertaken to guarantee that a widowed woman’s sexuality is safely tucked away into the controlling hands of society.  

A woman without a husband, either unmarried or widowed, seems dangerous to society. However, unlike a married woman whose sexuality is made “safe” to society via marriage, a widow has no such chances. A widowed woman is made to be a perpetual outcast, portrayed as a harbinger of ill luck whose presence is neither welcomed nor allowed in happy, communal gatherings such as weddings or birth ceremonies for fear that she will taint others with her misfortunes. Her banishment from society in the name of tradition only seeks to reaffirm oppressive patriarchal practices that deem that a woman is recognized and valued as a person in society only if she has a man to rely on and to affirm her identity. 

Moreover, these repressive practices to control women are packaged by society in a manner that ensures complicity of other women in subjugating their peers. Bilwakesh explains, “There were never any invitations to festivities for Meenakshi or Sowmya. Young, widowed, and denied the full glory of womanhood, they would naturally be full of envy and malevolence that would turn every festivity into charcoal.” Such is the life of seclusion and control fated for Sowmya who starts living with the stigma of widowhood without ever have fully known either the meaning or joys of womanhood or marriage.

Despite the communal pressure to shave her head, Sowmya’s father, Natesan, does not allow his daughter to endure this disgrace. However, his efforts to save his daughter from a tradition that has etched itself in time eventually fails as he is forced to momentarily send Sowmya to her in-laws’ house. At fifteen years old and living with her in-laws, life becomes unbearable as they mark her against her will with the last exterior sign of widowhood: a shaved head. Her only support comes in the form of Mani, a relative of Sowmya’s widowed aunt.

In Mani, not only does Sowmya find a tutor, but also an understanding friend who yearns to revolutionize the nation and its people by fighting for independence both from Britain and the oppressive traditions of widowhood. In Mani’s vision of freedom, Sowmya finds an opening to escape her drab life. However, at the crucial junction of fate, she meets an enchanting devadasi, Mallika, who offers Sowmya an alternate possibility to marriage; a life of freedom and devotion, a relationship with the art of dance that would fill her life with meaning and color. 

So begins the journey of Sowmya as the protégé of a well-known devadasi. Within Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form that is rich in religious implications, Sowmya finds both color and desire. The vividness of life that had been bleached out by widowhood returns to her through dance for finally “her hair would be braided and decorated with hair ornaments, circled with flower garlands. She would line her eyes with kohl and dot the middle of her brow with red kumkum paste. She would dress in silks. All adornments removed from her after Ramki’s death ten years ago would be returned to her.” Her journey of dance and music transform her from an ill-fated widow to a talented classical dancer to a Bollywood starlet. However, just like the moth’s desires to be near the light can be dangerous, Sowmya’s desires to live a life in the light prove to have consequences for which her family pays rather dearly.

Bilwakesh’s work entices the reader in many ways starting with the rich book cover itself which features the picture of an elaborately made up young woman, eyes lined heavily with kohl and an ornate tiara on her head. The illustration could be read as either the picture of a classical dancer or an image of a Bollywood starlet from the 1940’s, both aspects that would suitably depict Sowmya.

The focus on the devadasi and her dance is a literary treat for the readers since the author not only provides insightful scenes of the devadasi “way of life” but also inundates the work with the sounds of the musical instrument, called mridangam, infusing a lyrical meaning into the songs to which the dancer performs. The world of classical dance from South India is made available to the reader through descriptions of the importance of the expressions and postures such as when Sowmya “is a shimmering bird one moment, its plume fully unfolded and strutting, and next she was the Youthful God of the Seven Hills riding the peacock. Her face held in a bashful slant, she was the maiden, signaling her longing, recounting the dream when He promised marriage” all the while powerfully moving her feet to the rhythmic sounds of  “Kita-thaka-dharikitathom! Kita-thaka-dharikitathom! Kita-thaka-dharikitathom!”
Surrounding the dance and the artists are the changing contexts of revolution that question the integrity of the art and the artist, both of which have long been part of Indian culture. Through these precarious situations, Bilwakesh challenges the reader to consider the devadasi, a woman who occupies a fascinating and fragile social position, as a talented artist as well as a respectable, spiritual figure who is sought after for blessings during communal occasions of marriage and births yet feared for and despised for her social visibility, her powerful sexuality, her independence, and her accessibility to the world around her.
Thus Bilwakesh uses the figure of the devadasi to illustrate a feminist reality of an independent and strong woman who is a product of her culture and tradition without being exploited by the tradition itself. The devadasi stands in contrast to the figure of the widow who is a woman bound to her culture and tradition. By introducing the devadasi who serves as an alternate possibility and meaning to womanhood, Bilwakesh is able to have Sowmya reject the traditional option of marriage as a means of defining herself. Sowmya’s path to light opens up not via marriage or a man, but by the help of another capable woman who introduces her to a career path that proves to be emotionally fulfilling and financially satisfying. With an independent identity as a talented dancer, her personhood becomes defined with her abilities as an artist first, rather than a woman, a wife, or a widow. Regardless, Bilwakesh does not completely reject the institution of marriage. Rather, she realistically draws a woman who, having found fulfillment in herself and her work, craves to share her life with the man she loves and seeks to make a family of her own.

A flaw in the work is the way in which the narratives of national and personal freedom have been woven together. Bilwakesh’s depiction of the independence movement of the nation as a backdrop against which Sowmya’s quest and rebellion for personal freedom takes place never quite converges, either metaphorically or literally in a common struggle. Though Sowmya seems to be strategically placed as a close friend of freedom fighter Mani, the nation’s turmoil seems to neither affect her nor bother her. Despite Bilwakesh having carefully rendered a historical and authentic India, it is a drawback that her character fails to participate in the moments that lead to the emergence of the nation’s new identity.

The significant moment of intersection between the national and the personal takes place when Sowmya dances a powerful, nationalistic piece using the Indian flag. Her dance is meaningful enough to get her arrested and have her flag confiscated. However, this potentially powerful moment fizzles quickly because her happiness over the incident stems from her lover’s approval, rather than from her own awareness of the importance of her actions.

Other moments of brushing with India’s independence movement happen through her interactions with Mani and these too offer possibilities of converging Sowmya’s quest for freedom with the nation’s quest for independence. Through these interactions, she largely seems to be unaware of the weight of the work Mani is involved in. Her interactions with Mani seem limited to concerns either with herself or her family. National turmoil seems to be around her and surround her, albeit in a vague manner, despite the timeline of the narrative, which historically would indicate a feverish pitch of the independence movement. In the end, her struggles and success never quite fully merge with the nation’s struggles and success as the work ends around the year 1946, a year shy of India’s independence from Britain.

Desire of the Moth has a lot to offer in terms of a fluid writing style, its strong plot, and its decisive female characters. Within this fast-paced read of a little over 300 pages, the reader is transported from a conservative, patriarchal agraharam with its repressive practices to the divinely artistic world of devadasis and to the bustling city of dreams and movie making. Her approach opens up an India that is at once fascinating and flawed, diverse yet united in a singular national identity, all without compromising the notion of India or Indianness through exoticization or generalization.

Arpita Mandal is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Connecticut with an interest in human rights, postcolonial studies, and Arabic and Anglophone literature.