In ‘Mansions Of The Moon’, Shyam Selvadurai rises to the challenge of retelling Yasodhara’s story with intellectual rigour
Last year, on the centenary of the publication of Siddhartha, the iconic novel by German writer Hermann Hesse, I wrote a column about its afterlife for Lounge. Although I was aware of the popular appeal of the book, I wasn’t quite prepared for the wave of nostalgia it evoked among readers, especially men, across social media platforms.
In retrospect, the responses make sense. As the American critic Paul W. Morris noted in 1999, the plot of Siddhartha, which draws on the life and times of the Buddha, appeals to “the restless drifter, the alienated youth and political anarchist alike”. Hesse’s protagonist, a young man who ticks all three boxes, leaves everything in search of enlightenment. If you push the idea further, the nomadic ascetic lifestyle of the Buddha and his disciples, together with his initial refusal to admit women as his disciples, assumes a darkly misogynistic tint. So, how are we to make sense of the Buddha’s story, especially his treatment of his wife, from the vantage of our time?
As with Rama’s trial by fire of his wife Sita at the end of the Ramayana, there’s more than meets the eye in the story of Siddhartha, the Sakiya (Sakya) prince who left his wife Yasodhara, infant son Rahula, and the prospect of inheriting the throne of Kapilavastu, to become the Awakened One, or the Buddha.
Shyam Selvadurai’s ambitious new novel, Mansions Of The Moon, revisits this familiar trope of Prince Siddhartha’s transformation into a spiritual guru from Yasodhara’s perspective. Numerous retellings of the Ramayana through Sita’s eyes circulate in folk traditions as well as contemporary mythological fiction (two recent examples of the latter being Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest Of Enchantments and Amit Majmudar’s Sitayana). In a similar vein, Yasodhara’s story has also had many iterations and afterlives (recently in novels by Vanessa R. Sasson and Volga). Both women—upright and righteous till the end—are tested as much by their husbands as by the milieus in which they lived. And despite personal tragedies and public humiliations, they emerge as role models, two anachronistic “feminist” icons, who live on in our imaginations thousands of years later.
Selvadurai returns to two old Sinhala texts, Yasodharavatta and Yasodharapadanya, for inspiration. In the introduction to Mansions Of The Moon, he also acknowledges his debt to scholar Ranjini Obeyesekere, especially to her research on the Pali canon, which reveals Yasodhara’s shocking absence from the earliest texts. As Selvadurai explains, “She appears first as the nun Rahula Mata (mother of Rahula) and later as Yasodhara or Bimba the wife of the Bodhisattva.” Yasodhara is also present in the iconic moment of the “great renunciation”, where Siddhartha, about to relinquish his royal existence, goes to bid farewell to his wife and child. “But here she is asleep and seen only through his eyes,” Selvadurai adds.
Buried under the mythological and apocryphal layers that have accrued over the millennia-old Buddha story is this elusive woman—a loving daughter, loyal sister, caring mother, devoted wife—who must be recovered, re-imagined with all her fears and desires, furies and fortitude. As Selvadurai shows, it’s easier for Siddhartha to flourish as a flawed demigod than for his wife to find her place in the world as a flawed human being.
The cover of ‘Mansions Of The Moon’.
Selvadurai rises to the challenge of retelling Yasodhara’s story with intellectual rigour and humility. To begin with, he avoids the first-person voice, a device that can quickly descend into melodrama even in the best of hands. Instead, he sticks to the omniscient narratorial voice to capture the pathos of his protagonist’s life. His empathy for Ushas, as Yasodhara is fondly called by her loved ones, is so palpable that the reader is left in no doubt about the “hero” of his story.
In another understated but masterly move, the writer adopts a realistic mode of storytelling to conjure up the social and cultural milieu of fifth-sixth century BCE. He uses the simple present tense to create a sense of immediacy. As narrative styles go, these strategies are far from novel. But, on the whole, these choices have a transformative effect on the reader, who can anchor their feelings on the characters and the action more firmly, especially in moments of epiphany or ethical dilemma. For historical fiction to have wings, it must take off from the intersection of the contemporary reader’s consciousness and the writer’s attempts to revive an imagined past. Selvadurai strikes this balance, between ancient ritualism and a modernist mindset, with a delicate and assured grace.
Yet another obvious temptation for writers of fiction is to use a revisionist lens to look at “the way things were”, which is the literal translation of the word itihasa, or “history”, as we know it today. Etymologically, itihasa is a neutral word, free of the baggage of historians, who, in spite of their best intentions, are liable to look back at the past with all-too-human eyes.
In Mansions Of The Moon, Selvadurai’s gaze is trained squarely on Yasodhara’s inner turmoil and the spate of misfortunes she must overcome to attain her wishes. The author is her loyal proxy, a witness to her many trials, as wife, sister and mother. At the same time, he also sees patriarchal strictures for what they truly are: not only fetters that keep women away from certain privileges, but also customs that punish men who refuse to play by the rules of masculinity and caste.
For instance, as rashtrika (princely administrator), and later as the Awakened One, Siddhartha makes several bold moves to challenge untouchability. He walks among the destitute quarters begging for his meals, eats and drinks with people lower down the caste order, and places the well-being of his subjects ahead of coercive tax collection measures. As the Awakened One, he challenges the Vedic practices of animal sacrifice, advocating a universal loving kindness instead. In return, his father, Śuddhodana, has nothing but spite for him—for being the cause of his beloved wife Maya’s death at the time of Siddhartha’s birth; for not flexing his martial prowess in public; and for being too soft on defaulting taxpayers and criminals. In Selvadurai’s version of the Buddha story, Siddhartha is the motherless son rejected by his miffed father, a textbook case of bad parenting and inherited trauma.
The scars that Yasodhara has to bear are much worse. From the exile in far-off Mudgala, where she has to learn to till the land apart from doing a million other household chores, to her husband’s cold withdrawal, she has to navigate storms and stresses throughout her adult life. It’s a fate nobody deserves.
Yet, be it in the age of the Buddha or now, women have never had it easy, or fair. Yasodhara, in Selvadurai’s beautifully detailed re-imagining, is singular because she refuses to accept her lot without kicking up a storm. She doesn’t hide her rage at her husband, her disappointment with her marriage, or her grief at having to let go of her son. She doesn’t mince words as she lashes out at the Awakened One’s refusal to admit women into the order. She calls out his hypocrisy, when no one dares to, and pulls out every argument from her arsenal to get her way.
Yasodhara’s way is not the “Middle Way” as preached by her former husband. Following his teachings, she does quell the three fires that burn in her heart but she doesn’t douse her fiery core. As Selvadurai hints in the stunning denouement, Yasodhara’s way is the way to her own freedom, her discovery of who she truly is.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.