* Kolanad’s writing is breezy and her art of storytelling clever
* It presents a matter-of-fact portrayal of patriarchal oppression
In the 1920s in Thanjavur, a temple town of Tamil Nadu, Kanaka, a beautiful young devadasi, goes missing. As if in her stead, a lookalike statue made of gold miraculously appears in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple to which she was dedicated. Almost everyone in the village, including Kanaka’s mother, is convinced of her transformation and takes pride in this supernatural occurrence. The exception is Subbu, the temple priest’s young apprentice and Kanaka’s best friend, who is determined to find out the truth. But the truth in Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel Girl Made of Gold is not singular: It is presented as pieces of a puzzle that don’t make a complete whole; it hovers somewhere right outside our line of vision and, no matter how much we turn, strain and squint, never reveals itself completely.
With an interesting setting, premise and central figure, this mystery novel moves between two modes of narration. Much of the story is presented by an omniscient narrator using one character as the focus. For instance, the major clues regarding the sequence of events are presented in the chapter on Subbu. The narrator presents Subbu’s inner life with great tenderness — his imaginary conversations with his father who left them eight years ago, the anguished manner in which he loves Kanaka, the way he feels and is made to feel less than the others because of his limp — while also propelling the plot. The other chapters are presented as first-person accounts, such as the one on Mir Husain Sahib, the police sub-inspector investigating the case. Kanaka’s voice, like her fictitious self, remains missing.
Kolanad’s writing is breezy and her art of storytelling clever; she manages to foreground the narrative even when she seems to deviate. The plot, for instance, is entwined with the structure of the temple — the myths surrounding its establishment and the stories carved in stone on its being. The frieze on the temple gallery, a priest describes, was made exceptional by the rivalry between the sculptors — a father and son. What the father sculpted on one side, the son outdid on the other, and what the father did to disfigure the son’s sculptures ended up enhancing them. This anecdote is amplified through a father-son rivalry that drives the storyline. It isn’t an obvious narrative tool, but resonates with the way in which the life of priests and devadasis is connected with that of the temple.
Girl Made of Gold presents a matter-of-fact portrayal of patriarchal oppression. Young devadasis are raped in the name of tradition and Brahmin wives are abandoned by their husbands in search of moksha. A woman’s primary duty is to be in service of the men around her. But what sits uneasily through the book is the question of caste. Devadasis were traditionally lower-caste women and so you would expect a novel focusing on them to offer insight into the double, if not triple, oppression faced by them — as women, as being of low caste, and as prostitutes. The fact that they were sex slaves sold to the highest bidder is discussed substantially, but because they had more freedom in terms of movement, and to express and assert their sexuality, they come across as better off than the upper-caste men’s wives, who remain forgotten in the kitchen.
The omission of caste and the manner in which it affects lives become more pronounced when it is compared with the way the author describes the impact Subbu’s limp has on his life and self-esteem. His uncle constantly pities him for it, calling it the result of karma. A maid carefully considers the contradiction he presents before letting her mistress see him first thing in the morning — he is inauspicious because he’s a cripple but he’s auspicious because he’s a Brahmin. Even the zamindar’s son, Indra, is subject to discrimination. During his college days in England, Indra feels slighted for being a “man with a black face practicing a different religion”. He describes the Englishman’s “innate sense of superiority” as insidious and permeating his interactions with all races. There were forms of prejudice that were hard to explain and understand, like the time when a classmate’s mother treats him with disdain for being “primitive” but gets into bed with him, offering herself up to a “prince”.
There are mentions of the duplicitous nature of caste strewn in the narrative. When a rotting corpse is found in a well, the villagers don’t want men from the toddy-tapping caste to get in and retrieve it, for they — and not the decomposing cadaver — would “pollute” the water. But there’s no interaction with the devadasis that reveals the “insidious and permeating” nature of caste. In fact, most of the characters in the book, including Brahmins such as the priest and Subbu, dote on Kanaka. There is prejudice against them for being involved in sex work but even this is presented indirectly. For instance, a few boys tease Subbu by calling Kanaka a whore left unsatisfied by a cripple. But the exchange is meant as a slight to Subbu’s masculinity rather than Kanaka’s character.
Girl Made of Gold is a compelling page-turner that elevates itself within the mystery genre by illustrating the elusive nature of truth. Had it addressed the issue of caste a little more critically, the novel would have been a remarkable literary achievement as well.
Blessy Augustine is a writer and art critic based in Delhi