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Abha Iyengar’s Shrayan is an Indian fantasy novel that explores the individual’s struggle for both social and self-acceptance.
Review by Smita Sahay
All of us have a hidden place within ourselves, the place of longing and of escape from the dissatisfactions of life. But is it as easy as it sounds? Abha Iyengar’s first novel, Shrayan, is the journey of a creature, half human, half animal, through rejection and self-awareness to self-acceptance. He seeks and struggles to be understood in a world where he does not belong.
Iyengar liberally dips her quill into mythology and magic. The book is a fable of sorts; it brings to us a world of dissatisfied, imperfect characters, humans, semi-humans, or fantastical, fighting their own battles. Through these characters and their struggles, the reader learns something about herself too, for instance, learning to make peace with her unfulfilled desires.
Shrayan, a dweller of the underground, finds his first friends in snakes and Sapera and discovers dance, which gives him strength and solace throughout his life. Sapera’s brother Vishwasghat murders him and sells Shrayan like an animal. Fate rescues him and he reaches a school. This is where he discovers beauty and love for the first time. He learns Kshatriyam, a martial arts dance form, and he learns to read and write. However, due to certain unfortunate circumstances, he is forced to run away and he battles with his own bestiality. Eventually, he reaches a place where he finds food, shelter and a job with a baba and his hunchback companion. But will this last or will Life continue to test him?
Iyengar has brought magic realism and fantasy together. Shrayan has hooves and fur, but speaks, walks, eats and dances like a human. He reaches the fantastical land of happiness, where he meets Nordic beauties, snake-dragon women and a giant named Trishna, which means hunger. Iyengar brings in Indian arts, in Kshatriyam, mythology, in the dance drama unfolding the love story between Krishna and Rukmini, philosophy, in conversations Shrayan has with Lotus, Madira and Manila, and Indian culture, in kundalini.
The narrative is conversational and engaging and lots of unexpected plot turns and character appearances keep the reader immersed. Love takes myriad shapes, and so does sexuality. Fatherhood recurs in the many relationships that are formed and lost. Most of the characters are silent and complex with histories, strengths and failings.
However, sometimes the conversational, chatty narrative takes away from the magic, and some motifs, such as that of the recurring snake, probably symbolic of something, could be more plausibly accommodated in the plot. Some character appearances and plot turns would have been more impactful with a deeper treatment. One also wishes that some other characters whom Shrayan meets through his journey, show up later and have more role in the story and his life. A clearer sense of the passage of time would avoid confusion and make Shrayan more concrete in the reader’s psyche – his is called “…the body of a young man‘s” at the beginning of the story, and he is in his early twenties towards the end of it.
Short chapters, easy language and a dramatic narrative make the book a light read. The speculative fiction and magic take one to far away journeys. Speculative fiction is an evolving genre in Indian literature in English. In this book magic, relationships, fate and a semi-human character come together in a contemporary Indian context, to make you reach into your own insecurities and imperfections. The next time you worry about your own hooves, think about how far Shrayan walked on them.
Publisher: Blue Pumpkin.
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