#DesiBooksReview 1: Dancing Around the Self

#DesiBooksReview Issue 1

The Archer by Shruti Swamy | Algonquin Books, USA | September 07, 2021

In Shruti Swamy’s The Archer, the construction of the self as “I” takes center stage. With each section of the book, the narrator’s evolving sense of “I” is embedded more deeply using appropriately differentiated dialogue styles, descriptions, thoughts, and supporting characters.

Set in 1960s and 1970s Bombay and divided into five chronologically linear sections, the performance stars Vidya, a young woman of high caste but low means who finds an affirming outlet for her troubles in Kathak, the ancient, traditional dance form. Unmothered at a very young age, she grows up in a patriarchal system mothering her brother and father before relinquishing the role to attend college, another institution where she is made to feel second-class. There, she falls in love with Radha, a woman engineering major. But circumstances lead Vidya to marry a young, rich man after he sees her perform on stage. As the narrative nears its disastrous, contextually cyclical conclusion, Vidya’s self and her consciousness become increasingly dissociated before coming back together in scenes woven with layered language and lyricism.

Time itself is worn on the body here, like a costume.  The prose burgeons with rhythmic sentences that are run-on, untethered, yet perfectly composed. There is a violent phrase sneaked into a paragraph full of seemingly innocent context. The descriptions of ghunghroos, gharanas, bols, tablas, and tatkaars are intensely melodic; every period in the paragraph describing chakkars paints a visual image of the dance position in the readers’ minds. For those of us who have studied and danced Kathak, Swamy’s intricate and repetitive notations will be a familiar, accurate reminder of its state of constant spiritual motion.  

Dance and religion are elaborately tied, especially in Kathak, and here the sacred practice is explored through ancient Indian epic. The Mahabharata includes the devastating story of the student-archer Eklavya. On being rejected as the master-archer Drona’s pupil, Eklavya hones his skills in secret in front of a clay statue made in Drona’s likeness, accepting him as his master anyway. Eklavya becomes increasingly proficient and famous and, when he is discovered by Drona, he is asked to cut off his thumb and present it to his master as a gift. This will effectively end his archery days, yet Eklavya does it gladly. Swamy’s use of this story as a literary device, a plot point, does not land quite as well as Vidya’s increasingly proficient footwork. From time to time, writers of the South Asian diaspora have used mythology or religion—in Hinduism, they are one and the same—to frame contemporary social and familial issues. Akil Kumarasamy did it masterfully with her 2018 debut, Half Gods. This year alone, there have been two more such diaspora novels with Carl de Souza’s Kaya Days (which uses the Shakuntala myth) and SJ Sindu’s Blue-skinned Gods (which uses the Kalki story.) While it is heartening to see diaspora writers identifying and reaching for ancient and ancestral literary traditions, some of the interpretations seem to lack or eschew a fuller understanding of cultural contexts. This does a disservice to both the borrowed myth and the writer’s adaptation of it. Where the use of myth as allegory or archetype could have been woven into conversing more meaningfully on social justice and self-awareness, it is subdued here and narrows the profound scope of Eklavya’s story to fit an overwrought sense of epiphany.

The narrative also carries a stark examination of colorism. Fans of Swamy’s A House is A Body will know how beautifully physicality is examined in her stories. Vidya is immoderately aware of her dark skin, her sex, her impossibly vast reserve of artistic spirituality. While much of the story is written with sharp awareness of the body and self, Swamy stumbles when writing about intimacy. In one lush scene with Radha, the sexual act is almost lost, while in another with her husband Rustom B, the prose is unnecessarily purple. However, these intermittent hiccups are remedied by the brilliant, equally intimate writing about place and food. Vidya’s body has a relationship with hunger and her awareness is braided with meditations on and observations of her surroundings. Interspersed within harrowing text, there are gorgeous scenes full of Bombay’s beaches, sensuous explorations of Gujarati food, an appreciation of fine saris, the peculiar and humorous behaviors of college boys, vivid descriptions of Vidya’s matronesque dance teachers, salty and sweaty afternoons spent in chaalis, a taut conversation about abortion, and a billet doux to mangoes that left me breathless and hungry. 

Throughout Vidya’s experience with dance, she is always reaching for “something”; feelings, like mudras taking shape, as ebbs and flows of awareness. As she struggles to define what she wants and what it means to lose control of her destiny, we see the specter of Radha constantly hovering over every situation—Swamy again resorting to myth-like fantasy to make sense of reality. Such interactions—every interaction in the book, actually—are explored by creating and experiencing dance as self-discovery.

Yes, The Archer is almost perfectly crafted. It has a lot of heart as it dances around the idea of the self and reconciles “I” to the body with abundant love. A balance of intimacy and craft, prose and plot, style and substance, would have allowed for smoother orchestration, especially with the most critical turning points of the story. Maybe we still have much to learn from our histories and mythologies, which have not only moved us for millennia but also continue to transcend our imagination.

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