Writer Volga on re-imagining the Buddha's wife Yashodhara and why she is drawn to women from mythology
Sahitya Akademi winner Volga says that in resurrecting Yashodhara, she wanted to resurrect the intellectual and spiritual history of women. In this conversation with Firstpost, she speaks about what it means to call herself a feminist writer, the future of fiction in regional languages and why re-imagining mythology from different perspectives is important
I want to see Yashodhara as an intellectual, not as the victim of desertion, says Volga, about the protagonist of her newest book.
By rewriting characters from mythology, like Sita and Ahalya, I want to give new political meanings to those old narratives, she adds.
On the subject of readership in Telugu, she said that while the number of readers is increasing, the literary space is shrinking.
Sahitya Akademi Award winner and prominent Telugu writer Volga’s new book Yashodhara turns the idea of its titular character on its head, making her a partner in her husband Siddhartha Gautama’s quest for the truth, rather than a hapless victim. Volga’s Yashodhara is both compassionate and combative by terms, negotiating her place in the world with her position, intelligence and empathy. She matches her husband Gautama Buddha's passion in the search for the universal truth and even encourages him in his quest for spiritual fulfillment, becoming an anchor he can rely on during his journey towards enlightenment.
Gently reconstructing history through her imagination and interpretation of a historical character, Volga is ably assisted by her translator PSV Prasad, who has ensured that the subtlety of Telugu shines through even in a different language. For the author, who received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015 for her novel Vimuktha, published in English as The Liberation of Sita, this is another interpretation of a woman present in Indian mythology, who has been frequently depicted as a one-dimensional character.
In an interview with Firstpost, Volga opens up on her ability to create tenacious characters, retelling epics using a modern idiom, and why she refers to herself as a feminist writer.
Why Yashodhara? What made you reach out and resurrect a character, about whom not much has been written?
Because she is Yashodhara. Though much is not written or talked about Yashodhara, one cannot forget her. Now and then, in some context or other, Yashodhara comes to our minds. Two questions puzzled me when the famous painting or even the word 'Mahabhinishkramanam' came to my mind. How can Yashodhara sleep so peacefully when Siddhartha is leaving home forever? According to historians, Mahabhinishkramanam is not a secret mission. Everyone in the household knew of it. Gotami and Suddhodana are in great pain and ask him not to leave. What about Yashodhara? And the second question is, how can Siddhartha, who is so kind, caring and loving, even to animals and birds, be so unkind and untrue to Yashodhara?
In searching for the answers to these questions, I wrote this novel. I sculpted her as a kind, intelligent, peace loving and wise woman. I made Siddhartha’s quest an important agenda for Yashodhara too! Because she wants liberation for women along with men. When she realises that she cannot lead the path, she stands by Siddhartha.
In resurrecting Yashodhara, I want to resurrect the intellectual and spiritual history of women.
My definition of spirituality is different, as I have explained in my novel. As there is not much historical evidence available, I had lot of freedom in resurrecting her.
The striking idea in the book is that Yashodhara isn’t a victim. Contrary to the popular perception of her as a young mother abandoned by her husband, here she actively implores him to pursue the truth of life. Why did you choose to interpret her character thus, and was there any historical evidence to support this interpretation?
We are used to seeing women as victims only. I don’t like that view in each and every context. I think women have to negotiate with male depictions of female characters, which are either submissive 'gruhalakshmis' or victims of abduction, desertion and rape. These depictions stood as models for women writers too for many decades, used mainly to raise sympathy or empathy in the readers’ minds. This kind of victimhood stands as a hurdle in the path of knowledge. In some cases, the attitude of sympathy could only lead us again into patriarchal culture.
I want to portray Yashodhara in a completely different way. She is a thinker. I want to see Yashodhara as an intellectual, not as the victim of desertion. If I imagine her as a victim, what is there to write? That picture is already there in the minds of the people. I want to erase it and draw a new picture. In the Therigathas of the sixth century BC and songs of Bhikkunis in Buddha’s time, women wrote about their oppression in families and their quest for freedom. When there were women who wanted freedom in those times, can’t there be a Yashodhara as I portrayed?
“I have never received the respect you have given me," Yashodhara confesses to Siddhartha in the book. Does women's struggle for respect transcend time, and is it as applicable today in India as it was centuries ago?
Yes. There is no doubt. Women have to struggle for respect eternally. Not just women, men are also struggling for respect from dominant castes, classes, races and religions. Equality and respect are big things for many people in this hierarchical society.
Though your book is about Yashodhara, it is a telling commentary on the journey of Siddhartha. Do you think modern-day feminists have misread the journey and unfairly accused him of abandoning his wife and child?
I don’t say misread. It is one way of understanding the plight of women when husbands left homes for any reason. But I want to see this context from another angle. Do we mechanically think that women always want to stick to familial bonds? Is there no other goal for women? Are they not responsible to the society? We easily forget the societal role of women.
Can’t Yashodhara think about society’s evils like Siddhartha?
Now there are many women working as responsible citizens with or without the help of their husbands. Some of those women are leaving homes and coming out of marriages. Shall we cry or be angry for their husbands?
We are witnessing many epics being retold from the woman’s point of view. What do you think motivates writers to rediscover the same story through a different lens?
For many centuries, we used the same lenses. But now, from the past 50 years we have new lenses and a new vision. With this vision, women writers take up two important tasks. One is critique and another is construction. We must reclaim our lost space and build our history. Rediscovering is an important thing. This will help in the contemporary struggles of women. Women, in this process of rediscovering, cease to be subjects of patriarchal history. This rediscovery is an intellectual task. It will help us to understand the burden of victimhood.
When you work on a historical character, how difficult or easy is it to examine their lives against modern ideas of equality and liberation? For example, how do you imagine how Yashodhara would have reacted to certain situations or events?
Equality and liberation — we understand them as modern ideas or concepts. But wherever and whenever there is exploitation and oppression, the seeds of dissent will certainly be sown. It may be in a different form. By re-reading and reinterpreting the text, we can now understand how the concepts of equality and liberation are hidden and how we can bring them into the discussion. We can understand that these concepts are present even in mythology. We can see how the questions of justice are mixed up with tradition. The heroes in mythology fought for protecting tradition and women stood asking for justice and liberty, either vocally or silently. Questioning to attain justice, challenging the authority, revolting are not modern or Western concepts. They are as old as the Puranas, and new and frightening to the authorities. While imagining Yashodhara, I didn’t make her an unbelievably modern woman. I made her a woman with intelligence and the power to think. When Siddhartha embodies the concepts of equality and liberation, why can’t Yashodhara?
“Thoughts! For women!” … “Women have only passions. The moment they begin to think, they go mad," says Bimbaanana, Yashodhara’s father. The words are uncannily similar to so many stories we hear and read about even in 2019. What are your thoughts?
Yes. It is the same story. Women are burdened with Bimbaanana's words through various art and cultural forms. Forms may change, but the essence is the same and it is continuous. I want to change those words and their meanings and try to portray women with intellect.
You have written about many women from India’s mythology, from Sita to Ahalya. What is it that attracts you to these women?
I am a feminist writer. By rewriting characters from mythology, like Sita and Ahalya, I want to give new political meanings to those old narratives. In my opinion, to re-imagine mythological characters is an important political task.
The book raises a pertinent question – was Yashodhara the real strength behind Siddhartha?
There is every possibility. By extending and imagining that possibility, I am happy to reshape Yashodhara from a position of a victim into a strong woman.
As a prominent woman writer, what is your take on women authors in regional languages? Are there enough who think and write differently?
There are women authors in all Indian languages who can think differently. Women face more challenges to survive in this globalised and violent society. Unless they invent new ways and strategies, they cannot survive. So women are more creative and think differently.
Considering readership in Telugu has reduced drastically, what do you think is the future for authors/readers of regional literature?
It is the same story in every language. In Telugu, the number of readers is increasing but the literary space is shrinking. Many reasons. But new platforms like e-magazines, blogs are proliferating. We lost the public libraries in villages and small towns, where the first-generation school-goers are waiting to read. They are the potential readers for any Indian language. Writers are losing them for various reasons, especially the lack of libraries.
Finally, having been criticised about your writing, how would you respond to critics who brush you aside as a feminist writer?
Who will brush me aside? The literary establishment? For a writer, readers are more important. As long as readers don't brush aside the writer, the writer will be happy.