By Yashpal Translated by Anand
A novel about a woman determined to lead life her way in a male-dominated society. The story is set against the backdrop of a struggle for supremacy between Hindu and Buddhist ideologies in 1st century BC India
Divya is the story of a woman’s struggle to lead her own life. The story is set against the background of the conflict for supremacy between Hindu and Buddhist ideologies in India in the 1st century BC. Ancient India comes alive in all its glory and vigour in this novel by Yashpal translated into English by Anand. It has been hailed as one of the great historical novels in Indian literature. When it was first published in Hindi in 1945, it caused widespread furor because of the author’s portrayal of Divya as a woman who refuses to live by the rules of a male society.
Divya, the granddaughter of the Brahmin chief justice of the Madra republic, is the most talented dancer of the state. Prithusen, Divya’s lover, is an ambitious youth, whose father the merchant prince of Madra was once a slave. Prithusen is declared as the champion of martial arts, but the Brahmin aristocracy refuses to accept him as their equal in spite of his talent and wealth.
Divya, pregnant with Prithusen’s child leaves her grandfather’s house. She is refused shelter in a Buddhist monastery because, as a woman dependent on her family, she does not have the permission of her father or her husband. In desperation, she throws herself and her child into a river. The child is drowned but she is rescued and begins a new life as Anshumala, the chief courtesan and artist of Shursen.
Divya’s repute as the dancer reaches her former teacher Mallika, the chief courtesan of Madra. Mallika, in her old age, is looking for a worthy successor, and travels to Shursen to meet Anshumala. She is surprised and overjoyed when she recognises Divya, and takes her back to Madra.
The Brahmin aristocracies of Madra are now the rulers. The Brahmin chief, Rudradhir, refuses to allow a Brahmin girl to be the chief courtesan. He asks her to become his wife and the first lady of the state. Divya turns him down because she does not want to lose her independence. By losing herself she cannot remain alive, she says. Prithusen, her former lover now a Buddhist monk, offers her the shelter of his religion. Divya again rejects the offer saying “A woman’s religion is not Nirvana, but creation.” Marish, a philosopher who has no worldly possessions and who is an old acquaintance and admirer of Divya, offers his companionship as a male to an independent female. Divya accepts.
When the book first came out, the assertions by Divya such as “the mistress of a noble family is not a free woman, she is not independent like a disreputable courtesan,” outraged many of Yashpal’s contemporaries. But over the years, a core of younger critics and scholars continued to stand by Yashpal’s revolutionary ideas.
As Kamleshwar, the well-known Hindi writer and television personality said in a television interview, “Divya proves that Yashpal’s first and foremost concern is the tragedy of unequal status of women ... Yashpal was not just a revolutionary who fought for India’s independence; his ideas and his contribution to Indian literature were equally revolutionary.”
Bernard Queenan, a three-time winner of the prestigious Nemo literary contest run from Oxford University, was closely associated with the translation of Divya. Queenan said that, “Yashpal’s literary persona is reminiscent of George Orwell, with whom he has some obvious affinities. Here again is the gritty realism of life at the level of the street, in all its dust and grime. Here too is the biting satire of the society of his time as seen through the savage eye of the uncompromising non-conformist. And here are the consuming passion for social justice, the conviction of the ultimate worth of the individual, and the creeping shadow of disillusionment with the dictates of any doctrinaire orthodoxy ... Divya is an Orwellian fable or morality, in which the tribulations of a central figure underline the pernicious forces — religious, social and political — that attempt, but fail, to stifle the aspirations of the human spirit.” In many ways, Yashpal was ahead of his time. Discourse on women’s rights and their status in society are hot topics in India and elsewhere today. But Yashpal came out in support of women’s right over their bodies from his very first writings. He supported birth control and family planning in his novel Dada Comrade, published in 1939, when such things were barely talked about. Similarly, he also raised the issue of social ostracism and discrimination against backward/scheduled classes and untouchables in Divya over 60 years ago
As the most outstanding writer of post-Premchand period, “Yashpal’s work has historical importance … He successfully combines politics and psychology with social realism, the two distinct trends of post-Premchand era,” said Asaghar Wajahat, Hindi writer and Head of Hindi Department at Jamia Millia in New Delhi
While Divya received critical acclaim, criticisms were levelled at it on various fronts. Despite the author’s assertion that “The basis for Divya is history, but history coloured by imagination,” many contemporaries of Yashpal could not stomach his not so-glorified portrayal of the classical period of India’s history. Many scholars found in it historical anomalies relating to political and social systems prevailing at the time. Some questioned the mixing of Greek and Indian cultures to the extent and in the regions as depicted in the novel. Others were critical of the description of clothes and festival rites as described in the novel.
Unlike most historical novels, the main character in Divya is not any famous historical figure or event. It is an example of the author’s commitment to social realism, and of his perspective on history that analyses the circumstances and issues in the context of the situation prevailing at the time. Yashpal in Divya rejects both the inequalities of the Hindu caste-system, its inherent contradictions about the position and role of a woman in the society as well as the deterministic nature of Buddhism for the realities and needs of the palpable world. He said, “History is not a matter of belief, but of analysis. History is the self-examination by man of his past.”
Pakistani readers will find it interesting that Sagal, the city where most of the action takes place in the novel and where Divya was born and lived, is the modern city of Sialkot now.
Some clicking lines from the book, these lines show Divy's responce over the offers of her 3 suiters...
In a voice devoid of any emotion, Divya asked the Acharya, “What further orders await this unfortunate creature?”
Sitting down on the mat spread by the guard, the Acharya said, “Devi, your place is not that of a dancercourtesan. You are of high birth. Your place is that of the mistress of a noble family. I am here to offer you the place of the First Lady in the house of the Acharyas. Devi, oblige me by accepting the offer.”
Her eyes fixed steadily the face of the Acharya, Divya replied, “Acharya, the place of the mistress and of the first lady of a noble family, is a rare honour. This destitute woman bows her head before the offer of such a high place. But Acharya, the mistress of a noble family is not a free woman; she is not independent like a disreputable courtesan. Learned Acharya, the honour given to the noble bride, the respect given to the noble matron, and the authority given to the First Lady are there because of the man who gives her protection. It is not an honour due to the woman; it is an honour due to the powerful man who owns her. Arya, this honour and respect can be obtained by a woman only by willingly surrendering her inner self.” After a few moment’s silence, she continued, “Learned sir, what is left of the woman who has given up her self? The Acharya must forgive this humble servant. Even though destitute, she wishes to live independently. By losing her self she cannot remain alive.”
Just then, the bhikshu approached the seat of the Acharya, and said,
“Devi, I, Bhikshu Prithusen, a devotee of the Buddha, am here to receive into the bosom of the Buddha the woman oppressed by society.”
Divya’s eyes opened wide as she heard and recognised the voice of the russetbhikshu standing in front of her. A shudder ran through her body. She heaved a deep sigh and sat motionless, looking at the face of the bhikshu.
Bhikshu Prithusen raised his hand in benediction and said, “Devi, by the mercy of the Buddha, it has been possible for you to realise that attachment and infatuation are only illusions. Devi, peace does not lie in riches, nor in prowess, or in the gratification of the senses. Everlasting peace lies only in Nirvana. Devi, no sorrow of the world can mar the beatitude that lies in Nirvana. The unhappy ones of the world, oppressed by society, find peace in the shelter of the Buddha, in the shelter of the True Faith, in the shelter of the Monastic Order. Come into the sanctuary of the Infinite Mercy.” …
Her eyes lit up again. In a voice trembling with emotion, she said, “Honoured sir, what is the position of a woman in the religion of the bhikshu?”
In a calm voice the bhikshu replied, “Devi, the bhikshu’s purpose is Nirvana. The woman represents temptation. As such, she is a hindrance in the path to Nirvana and, therefore, has to be given up.”
“Honoured sir, then follow your religion of Nirvana,” Divya replied in a slow but firm voice. “A woman’s religion is not Nirvana but creation. Let the bhikshu permit her to follow her own path.”
When his chance came to speak, the traveler from the East drew near and addressing Divya, said, ,
“I am Marish. I have come all the way from Mathurapuri to be near you, Devi.”
Once again Divya’s eyes opened wide and lit up with wonder and curiosity. The traveller, covered with dust from head to foot, said, “Devi, I cannot offer you the place of the First Lady in a royal palace; I cannot give you the assurance of the eternal joys of Nirvana. I live in the midst of the joys and sorrows of this world. Experience and reflection are my only assets. I can only offer to share those feelings and experiences with you. I am a traveler along the world’s rough and dusty roads. On that journey, impelled by the desire for your womanhood, I offer my manhood to you. I want an exchange of support. In this fleeting life I can only offer a feeling of fulfillment.”
He paused for breath, and added, “By reproducing my kind, I can try to add another link to the chain of human continuity.”
Divya sat quietly for a few moments, lost in thought. Then no longer needing the support of the wall, she stretched out both her hands towards Marish. In a tremulous voice, she said, “Grant me the abiding shelter of your arms, Arya.”