The daughter of an IPS officer, the beautiful Tulsi has just graduated with a record score from IIT and is engaged to be married to an NRI engineer. But she falls for Madhav, a journalist as charming and eloquent as the deity he is named after.
“Like a gopika enchanted with Krishna’s divine flute music”, Tulsi is persuaded by her gently persistent admirer to elope with him just a few days before her wedding. The consequences — both short-term — for her family — and long-term on Tulsi’s life — are disastrous.
The story is told by a much-older Tulsi who has since then moved to Vrindavan and embraced life as a shaven-head Meera sadhu. The narrative switches back and forth in time as she tells her story, which also withholds the secret of why Tulsi chooses to punish herself by voluntarily living in the netherworld reserved for widows or Meera sadhus. When the book begins, a very sick but apparently repentant Madhav has traced her to Vrindavan and is desperate for an audience.
As in her award-winning novel Hangwoman (2014), KR Meera is at her best in this tragic anti-love story. The opening lines, or rather the title, make it abundantly clear that this story does not end well for any of those involved. Yet there is nothing predictable or dull about the narrative or the protagonists. KR Meera’s depiction of Tulsi’s gradual breakdown — from a self-assured young woman with great potential to a jealous nagging, forever-being-cuckolded wife — is organic and believable. As is her portrayal of Madhav — the glib, charming serial-cheater.
In the author’s note, KR Meera writes of how after the original Malayalam novella Meera Sadhu was published, she heard from women readers who said Tulsi’s experience mirrored their own. “I had imagined that there would be only two or three Tulsis in the world, apart from the sixteenth-century poet Meera Bai. But later, to my horror, I realised that this world has produced and devastated countless Tulsis. Perhaps, every one of us cannot help turning into a Tulsi at some point in our lives.”
That some people develop a fixation in love that can be self-abusive and damaging is no great revelation, yet the story works well as an antidote to the headiness of love/lust. But there is no redemption for either Tulsi or Madhav.
Besides a shocking twist, the subtle parallels the author draws between Madhav and his divine namesake may make you wonder how heroes of mythology must be nightmares in real life, at least in the modern world where monogamy is the norm and women have rights. Madhav tells Tulsi about his 27 previous girlfriends when he starts wooing her. His argument or justification for his rich romantic history is flawless in its logic and disturbingly familiar:
“I shall never refuse any woman’s love. It would devastate her. If my love can make a woman happy, why would I want to deny her? You do not understand, Tulsi. They were all unhappy. They had never been loved. They had been denied love by fathers, husbands or sweethearts. I offered them my love as alms. This body of mine will be eaten up by ants and worms one day. If it can be of use to another human being, why should I refuse? But be clear about this — I never desired any of them.”
Yet Meera’s critique is very subtle. It is only towards the end that Tulsi says it in as many words:
“Madhav, you are like Krishna, aren’t you? Love Incarnate? Like the Krishna of Vrindavan, are you not a slave to love and devotion?”
This 100-page novella is a one-sitting read. Tulsi’s narration of her self-destruction is no less mesmerising than Krishna’s flute or rather Shehrazad’s storytelling. You devour one page after another, horrified and yet completely absorbed.