"Breaking Free": This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence
Author Vaasanthi
Book House

“Breaking Free”: This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence

"Breaking Free": This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence
  • The book “Breaking Free” by Vaasanthi has been translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, and it brings Vaasanthi’s Tamil masterpiece to an entirely new readership.

  • This book tells the story of three generations of women and the effect history and memory–and secrets–have on their lives. Kasturi and Lakshmi are born into the devadasi clan. While Kasturi thinks of nothing other than the joy she experiences when she’s dancing before the deity in the temple, Lakshmi is troubled by the treatment dasis receive from society.

  • To the surprise of those around her, instead of learning to dance, Lakshmi insists on getting an education, and becomes a doctor. As their paths diverge, the differences in their opinions cause a rift in Kasturi and Lakshmi’s relationship. But when tragedy strikes, Kasturi’s faith in tradition is shaken and she finds herself turning to Lakshmi once again.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Joan’s claim that singing in the church choir brought her peace of mind seemed like an attempt to forget her gypsy ancestry. However, during the same period Joan also undertook the task of researching her roots. I watched her check out a large number of books from the library and immerse herself in studying them. She even chose the same subject as the topic for her PhD thesis.

‘Do you know something? My gypsy ancestors migrated from western India to Europe!’ she had told me enthusiastically once.

‘Both of us carry the same set of genes,’ she had added after deep reflection. ‘Scientists say that all human communities are in fact descended from the same primitive mother. Yet we keep dividing people like idiots. When I meet my father some day, I will try my best to demolish his foolish ideas. Even if he is angry that my mother had hidden the truth from him, he should understand why she felt compelled to hide it.’

These days she seldom spoke about Mark. She seemed to have almost forgotten him. I thought it was a good sign. I wonder why I suddenly remembered Joan today. My mind had jumped from memories of Amma to thinking of Joan. It was she who had said: there was nothing more tragic than the memories of those closest to us fading away.

I opened the curtains wide. Outside, the mist had lifted. Laden with the weight of dewdrops, the roses near the window had closed their petals. There was water on the glass windowpanes, as if sprayed by the drizzle. The lake was visible in the distance, glittering under the mild sun. It had a persona all its own. Its character changed with the time of day. It occurred to me, oddly enough, that Amma would have thought so too.

I exercised a little and put on my walking shoes. When I stepped out of the room, I saw Ganesan in the kitchen. He was a young man who cooked and did the housework for us. On seeing me, he said, ‘Tea is ready, ’ma. Drink it before you set out.’

Moments later, he brought a steaming cup of tea on a tray and offered it to me courteously. Too courteously, I thought, feeling awkward. Though I had told him time and again that he could walk around the house in slippers, he preferred being barefoot. ‘Not used to it,’ he would say with a smile.

"Breaking Free": This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence
N. Kalyan Raman, translator of the book

Even on the streets, in this biting cold, many people of his community who worked in the tea gardens here walked around in their bare feet. It troubled me to see them, but he would explain cheerfully, ‘It’s not because of poverty, ’ma. We cover our heads with a woollen blanket but leave our feet bare. The earth should touch our feet. Something would be amiss only if we let the dew fall on our heads.’

What he said seemed like an attractive philosophy. I never spoke to him about slippers after that.

The hot tea was refreshing and filled me with cheer. ‘What are you going to make for tiffin?’

‘I am planning on making idiyappam.’

Delighted, I said, ‘Great! Will there be stew to go with it?’

‘Of course, madam.’

‘Excellent!’ I laughed and started out.

The moment I stepped beyond the doorway, a gust of cold wind embraced me. The sun shone brightly, splintering through the clouds. Muffler tied around his head, Kuppusamy, the gardener, was busy weeding the lawn. He saw me and said, ‘Vanakkam, ’ma.’ I nodded at him, opened the gate and walked towards the lake. Just like ours, the neighbouring houses were also independent bungalows with a large compound. If someone was killed within, no outsider would know. There were no permanent residents here. People visited only during the season. Why did my mother, who worked in the north, want to come south for her vacations? ‘I was born there. I want to die there too,’ she had once told me. ‘Don’t talk about dying,’ I retorted, my eyes filling with tears. Amma had laughed and hugged me. ‘Silly! It was only in a manner of speaking. Everyone must die some day. When I grow old, you must take me there.’

I still remember her hugging me and the warmth from that embrace. Her smell, too. Somehow, a sweet fragrance always lingered around Amma. I could never tell whether the fragrance came from her body or her clothes. Now, when I open her cupboard, the same fragrance wafts out, as if she is there in the flesh.

Amma must have lost confidence in me. That’s why she sought her end by herself, without waiting for me to bring her here.

I shook my head to clear it and walked on. I shouldn’t be thinking about Amma through all my waking hours; I’ll go mad. What I have come here to accomplish won’t get done. Though the memories came like puppies snapping at my heels, I shooed them away as I walked. Among the pine trees standing tall on the hillside to my left, there were single, isolated bungalows at many levels. At the very top was a lone, tall mansion that seemed to touch the sky. No one knew who the owner was. Amma had looked at it once and said, ‘How nice it would be to live there.’ I was ten years old at the time. I remembered the story of Jack and the beanstalk. If one planted a hyacinth seed in the garden of that house, the stalk might actually grow upwards and touch the sky. When I told my mother that if I climbed it like Jack had, it would take me straight to paradise, she stroked my back with affection and smiled. She had looked very beautiful then. I don’t know if she developed an acquaintance with the people in that house later.

Absorbed in my thoughts, I had walked to the wrong part of the lake. By then, a crowd of visitors had begun to arrive in the vicinity of Sims Park. Horse-ride vendors were luring young children with a display of horses. I passed them with quick strides. As I hurried by rows of shops selling woollen wear, fruits and sweets, it felt as if the human energy all around and its vitality had no connection with me. I wanted to escape, to run away from there. It was sheer madness to have wandered to this side of the lake. As I looked around bewildered, my eyes fell on a narrow track that cut across the road and went upward. The steep climb spurred my interest. I took a deep breath and started up that path. Its beauty stunned me. Tall tress stood on either side, so tall that their tops were not visible. I was reminded of my visit to Muir Wood Forest, a nature park maintained by the US government near San Francisco in California that is filled with giant redwood trees that are several hundred years old. These trees, too, might be as old, I thought. They were witnesses to the history of an era. They would know secrets not recorded in the pages of that history, secrets that were embedded in their leaves instead. Since there was not a lot of sunlight in the area, the air was cool. The solitude there was very pleasant. How had I not discovered this path all these days? As I ambled along the path, gazing upward, with no grasp of its beginning or its end, I stumbled on something. I almost fell but someone caught hold of me.

‘This is what happens when you walk without looking at the ground.’

I recovered my balance and looked around. A toothless old woman stood there laughing. Standing beside her, holding on to her sari, was a young boy.

‘Thank you, Paati,’ I said.

The old woman looked at the boy.

‘She is saying nandri in English,’ he whispered to her.

‘For what?’ The old woman laughed. Her question was drawn out like a melody. ‘Why are you walking alone in this forest area, girl?’

‘This spot is very beautiful. I discovered it only today. Why should anyone be afraid to come here?’

‘There isn’t much light here. We are used to it. You are a city girl. If I talk of spirits and demons, you won’t believe me. Anyhow, it’s best if you come here with a man. That’s all I’ll say.’

I found the old woman’s warning interesting. The boy was staring at me without taking his eyes away even for a moment.

‘Then I’ll have to look for a man.’ I laughed as though I was talking to someone familiar.

‘Are you not married yet?’ she enquired fondly.

When I shook my head to say no, she said, ‘Why not bring your mother?’

As I tried to come up with a reply, the boy pulled her by the hand, saying, ‘Come, Aaththa. Let’s go,’ and forced her to leave. He must have found our conversation boring. When they had moved out of earshot, he said something to her. The old woman turned abruptly and looked at me with surprise in her eyes. There was something else, too, in those eyes. Then, holding the boy’s hand, she walked swiftly down the path.

I resumed my stroll in a state of confusion. What could have caused the dread I had seen in the old woman’s eyes? The question stood tall before me, blocking my way.

Suddenly, I remembered.

He was the boy I had met the other day on the lakeshore. I couldn’t recognize him in his woollen cap.

"Breaking Free": This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence

Excerpted with permission from Breaking Free: A Novel, Vaasanthi, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, Harper Perennial India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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"Breaking Free": This nuanced and thought-provoking novel is set against the rising clamour for India’s independence