#DesiBooksReview 1: On a Frenzied Night, a Young Woman Finds Transcendence

Rashi Rohatgi is an American Desi Norwegian and a writer and translator.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 1

Kaya Days by Carl de Souza; Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman | Two Lines Press, USA | September 14, 2021

Kaya Days: de Souza, Carl, Zuckerman

In the climactic scene of Carl de Souza’s novel Kaya Days, Shakuntala loots a warehouse store for furniture too big to fit into her house. Clearly not a straightforward mythological retelling, this witty story, set during anti-police brutality protests in turn-of-the-millennium Mauritius, isn’t played for laughs either. So what does it mean when literary diaspora novels like Kaya Days—not alone in a year that also gives us Shruti Swamy’s The Archer and S J Sindhu’s Blue-Skinned Gods—employ Hindu mythology? 

In part, the allusions give historical weight to stories that seem fragile at times, supported as they usually are by national canons that would have us compare de Souza’s protagonist to her Franco-Mauritian antecedents like Virginie, a Juliet Capulet-esque figure for whom death is more certain than consummated desire. In Kaya Days, the echoes of the Shakuntala myth let us comprehend the actions of a young girl and her night’s companion—independent of, if not heedless of, consequences—as hopeful.

When Santee starts her day, she is unaware of what is about to unfold. A sheltered Indo-Mauritian daughter from a poor family, she has been tasked with picking her brother up from school, but does not realize this is due to her mother’s understanding of the tensions in the air. She does not find him waiting outside his prestigious prep school, and we follow her as she traces his unsavory haunts to a casino, a brothel, and the streets of the capital city, Port Louis. Santee is both a fish out of water and accustomed to underbellies. For example, she doesn’t grasp that the casino is a brothel and that she’s being propositioned, but when a dead body appears, she instinctively slips right out. She gets into a cab driven by a man she misunderstands, because of his football-fan tattoo, as being named Ronaldo Milanac. In turn, he misremembers her name as Shakuntala, Kalidasa’s teenage mother from the forest—forgotten by her lover, cast adrift in the capital city, yet with spirit undimmed. By the time Santee is reunited with her brother, they are caught up in the violence of a furious citizenry. By the novel’s close, even her brother, used to his sister quietly helping the family invest in his future, sees Santee’s luminousness, and she herself feels braver and becomes loquacious, assertive, demanding. 

There is also, however, something specific about the diasporic relationship to mythology. We might place this book alongside Indian American writer Shruti Swamy’s excellent recent novel, The Archer, which combines a similarly rhythmic, often trancelike atmosphere with major allusions to Hindu mythological figures. Swamy’s protagonist, Vidya, is a poor Bombay girl who devotes herself to Kathak, and begins to make sense of her story as juxtaposed against that of the scriptural archer, Eklavya. Neither work actively takes on contemporaneous international discussions about Hindutva. Neither, after all, is set contemporaneously, and neither protagonist arrives at their mythological counterpart via obvious religiosity. But neither work is apolitical either. Both novels have explored the ways in which these marginalized young women have taken mythological narratives floating through their ether and found them empowering in ways that are not necessarily all-encompassing or net-positive. Both Santee and Vidya revel in the ability of their mythological counterparts’ fleeting moments of glory, and how the certainty of those moments allows them to construct a moral code for a personal way forward and through, rather than around or out of, marginalization. We follow de Souza’s Santee for only a few days—sultry, feverish days demarcated by death—but set against the mythology, this choice becomes meaningful. What does it matter, if at all, that Shakuntala is reunited with Dushyant somewhat randomly (for the ring mechanism may be intentional, but it also bakes in uncertainty and coincidence)? How might it have reshaped the ways in which she looked back on those earlier days  when she thought all was lost? How might those days have shaped the ways in which she later lived her marriage, her queendom, her less distinctly mythologized life? De Souza’s slim novel hints at all of these questions.

Hindu mythology claims a totality: that everything of value about dharma, artha, kama, and moksha lies within the Mahabharata’s verses. This suggests a body of knowledge that cannot be  known fully without erasing or disregarding oneself: a framing familiar and surmountable to diaspora authors who have always been writing from within liminal spaces, margins, and gateways. Flimsy even in its own time, perhaps, for it is not only the Mahabharata’s self-advocating Shakuntala who endures, but also Kalidasa’s erotic one. Like Swamy’s Vidya, de Souza’s Santee turns to mythology to engage with desire that overflows into margins, gateways, futures. For contemporary, diasporic Hindus, for whom questions of desire have been juxtaposed with questions of duty, Kaya Days suggests the juxtaposition is instead of desire and justice. The difference between the two is hardly impermeable, but the epic Shakuntala’s sense of duty gives her the courage to stand up for her son’s rights, whereas de Souza’s Shakuntala’s desire gives her the courage to withstand the injustice of being forgotten, to last until the remedy of a relationship based on mutual recognition. De Souza’s novel isn’t a romance, but a story of a young woman chancing upon recognition in a society that’s desperately reaching for it, and using the mythology at her disposal to firmly yoke her cause to that of the crowd. Similar, perhaps,  to other diaspora literary fiction referencing Hindu mythology, Kaya Days’ allusive strand creates a space for the consideration of a collective orientation toward justice.

The title of Carl de Souza’s 2000 novel, Kaya Days, anchors the dreamlike novel in space and time. Particularly for Mauritian readers, it provides a steady aural and political undercurrent of the titular seggae star’s beats and lyrics. Even amidst the cyclonic tension of the protests, the offbeat rhythms of de Souza’s prose propel the story forward independently, allowing it to be both dense and dynamic. This is a winning combination in lines such as this description of the lead-up to a Bollywood-style forest frolic: 

” . . . he joined her where the food had been laid out for this meal, under this tree, in this place. She opened a bag of potato chips, licking the salt off her fingers. He had never eaten ham with dried fruit, never drunk whiskey from the bottle.

That life goes on during times of political strife is a truism most often put forward by members of dominant groups. Countering that, the stylized language of this novel pulls forward the potential for change that is both contingent upon and not promised by its political context.

For Anglophone desi readers abroad, the timing of Jeffrey Zuckerman’s smooth translation also allows for meaningful grappling with recent protests against racism and police brutality in the USA and elsewhere. There have been other recent books written in the wake of protests-called-riots. For example, Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (2016), features Victor, the Black son of a white police chief during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Although Santee does not join the riots out of a clear political call to action, the stakes of her involvement, both external and philosophical, are resonant. As the mantle of the young, free Shakuntala overtakes her, Santee becomes open to an empowerment never available to her outside of these moments of collective catharsis. We understand that when the dawn breaks, and the status quo resumes, her life may not be forever changed, but she will live it differently. 

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Rashi Rohatgi is an American Desi Norwegian and a writer and translator.

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