Book Review: The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

May 06, 2020

The Yogini, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay
Trans. by Arunava Sinha
Titled Axis Press, 2019

Fiction | In translation | Independent publishing | Identity

What a great little novel! The Yogini is fun and brilliantly ambiguous, with an interesting and complex female protagonist and highly relevant existential questions at its root. There is a light-hearted tone to The Yogini which makes it a fun, easy read but the underlying concepts - identity, faith, agency and relationships - are deep and you're left with plenty to think about after finishing the book.

Homi is a young, middle-class, female journalist, living and working late-night shifts in Kolkata. Her marriage is passionate and highly-sexual but ultimately loveless. She is being stalked by a dirty "hermit" (or yogi) with matted dreadlocks. She's convinced that the hermit is a manifestation of her fate.

Homi becomes increasingly obsessed with the notion of fate, becomes unable to make decisions and surrenders more and more to fate. Her marriage falls apart and her life becomes a numb routine of sleep and work; a pattern which resembles depression. However, it remains unclear whether Homi is experiencing depression, a subconscious realisation that her life lacks purpose, the fragmentation of self or whether this is a larger existential and spiritual crisis, in which the hermit-like manifestation of fate might be very real. The book is, of course, really about all of these things.

Homi is an interesting and unapologetic female character who experiences both intense and depleted sexuality. She is described as selfish and in love with herself and although this causes her relationships to break down, the narrative voice doesn't condemn her for this; which is refreshing. She is not responsible for anyone else - also refreshing - and this allows space for the exploration of selfhood and purpose beyond the roles imposed upon on.

The novel undergoes a miraculous shift in place and pace, as Homi leaves the hustle of Kolkata and turns up in a retreat-like courtesan's mansion in Benaras, taken in by a group of women. Homi doesn't remember how she arrived there, and the reader isn't let in on the secret either.

At the courtesan's mansion, Homi sleeps for days, is cared for by the women living there and is even washed and soaped by a new friend; a moment of physical, non-sexualised touch between women which is beautiful and important amidst the hyper-sexualised representations of women's bodies we are so used to seeing. Reading these Benaras scenes instilled a deep sense of tranquillity in me, as it was easy to imagine (or dream about) how calming and refreshing these days would have been for Homi, as so many of us can relate to the exhausting modern life she escaped from.

The book was also an education for me on some aspects of Indian culture. I was inspired to Google courtesan history (courtesans were talented and respected dancers whose reputations were sullied as they were turned to prostitution during the colonial period) and the translator's note at the beginning of the book about the complexities of Niyati - translated as 'fate' - was helpful and highly interesting. This page on Niyati was also a nice touch in terms of the physicality of the book. (pictured below)

My favourite thing about this book is its ambiguity. It opens with an prologue of sorts, in which Homi tries to throw first herself, and then the hermit (her fate), off a moving train. Chapter one is entitled 'The Past' leading us to think that the book will circle around to her rejecting/murdering her fate, though by the end, the exact opposite seems to have happened. Bandyopadhyay leaves lots of space for interpretation; even the hermit's existence remains ambiguous; is he a figment of Homi's imagination or a real person on whom she has projected the idea that he is her fate? It's a book I want to return to, knowing how the plot turns out, to see what new ideas and interpretations come out for me. It's one of those books with enough layers that you can return to it time and again and always uncover something new.

One thing is certain: I'll be picking up Bandyopadhyay's earlier works Abandon and Panty which have also been translated by Titled Axis Press.


Get your copy of The Yogini here

Book suggestions if you like The Yogini:
Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto

The Yogini is one of five fiction book recommendations from the May curation

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