Krishna has been in New York, making documentaries. But, following the death of her grandmother, Krishna returns to her home village in a part of India so feudal, almost medieval in its ways, that, in spite of her essential urbanity and modernity, she must make concessions to tradition. A strange bequest awaits Krishna upon her return. From beyond the grave, Dadiji directs Krishna to enact her dharma (duty), which, it transpires, is to document on film the last days of Damayanti, a strong-minded lawyer who, upon the death of her husband, will commit sati.
Krishna, the “warrior” and the first girl child to be born to her family in five centuries, finds herself caught between the modern world of loose ties and casual relationships (as personified by her westernised lover, Natchek), and the older ties of blood and obligation, where honour transcends love. Always a rebel, Krishna has to confront the fact that her dharma comprises an act as conforming and backward as it is subversive.
Dadiji always said that Meera was “dard deewani”, pain-crazy. That was a special madness, created specially for poets and too-much love women. Not like Radha at all, who was love-crazy, satiated by kisses and caresses, fulfilled and brazenly asking for more. I knew about love-crazy women. My mother was one of them, forsaking everyone, her family, her career, her child simply to follow my father all over the world. Waiting for him to come home in the evenings, filling herself with dreams all day, and loving him all night. Everything else in the world was simply a great distraction, something that kept her away from her one sole satisfaction – loving her man. Even me.
But I never understood what pain-crazy was like. Sometimes, I thought of the elephant I had seen my grandfather bring down in the fields in our village-relative house. Its many rooms filled with so many people, all cousins, and uncles and great-uncles, aunts and great-aunts. All relatives in that house, or at least on the ground floor.
Actually, it was our house too, at least once you climbed the narrow steps up to the upper floors. It rose like a vast pale yellow monster with its red-brown tiled head amidst the brown and ochre mud homes of the village. At the very top was Baba’s room, a long hall lined with old photographs and dusty weapons, where a large desk guarded the inner doorway and the tall windows formed a semicircle of vision over the approaches from the city to the north.
You could walk out of the windows into a tiny balcony to get a clear view right up to the mango groves in the distance. The south side of the room also had a window, a tall, floor length French window with beautiful etched glass panes and a heavy mahogany pelmet. Except the south window opened into nothingness. Just a two-story fall onto the hard regular flagstones of the courtyard. “Is this a trap window? For enemies?” I had asked Baba once. He had laughed at the idea.
“I hadn’t thought of it, but now that you say so, shall we try to find an enemy to push out of it,” he had asked me seriously, once he had stopped laughing. For weeks afterwards, we had tried to find a suitable candidate for pushing out of the south side window. Then we decided, that all of Baba’s foes were in the city. And unless one of them could be brought to the village, the window would have to remain un-inaugurated by the enemy.
A set of narrow steps rose along the side of Baba’s study to the highest point in the village – the roof top, flat instead of slanted, the only part of the house that had a concrete ceiling instead of the dull red tiles. “The highest point for the next ten miles,” Baba told me once, helping me set up a telescope to prove his words. I had seen the road to the city run far across the streets, beyond the mango grove, from the roof. It had been empty then, with hardly any traffic. Now, a long line of trucks, buses, bullock carts, cars, Sumos wrestled to get through, bumping along in both directions. “Soon, it will be the Grand Trunk Road,” Dadiji had written to me in New York.
And from this same roof, I had watched quietly when Bela, the old she-elephant had gone mad and broken her chain. She had gone on a rampage through the fields, roaring wildly and trampling the crops. In her rage, she had managed to smash the almost new, gleaming metal thresher. Baba had simply laughed at the damage and promised to pay the farmers whatever price their crops would have commanded. “Better than a film. Better than fifty films. Better than that fool wrestler politician with his monkey clothes,” he had roared, his laugh rippling over the village.
But, when Bela had turned her attention on the house, and more importantly on the mud huts of the villagers that surrounded it, Baba had decided that it was quite enough. The elephant must be calmed or killed. “Is she hurt?” he called out to the mahout, reaching for his rifle that Mohan held out to him. But Bela’s mahout was already dead, trampled under her feet in her madness, and none of the others dared approach her.
Baba had called for the men to collect in the courtyard. “When your great-grandfather yelled,” one of the village-relative women had whispered in my ear long ago, “you could hear it through seven kos of our farming and 21 kos of the clans. Your Baba’s voice is strong, but nothing like the old man’s.”
“Is that dard-deewani” I asked Dadiji, sliding next to her, on the roof where she stood watching Bela rampage through the fields. In answer, she only pulled me close, cupping her hand under my chin, holding me so close that my cheek rubbed against the heavy silk of her sari.
“Hmmm…” The chain-links of her heavy gold ardhkardhani pressed into the side of my forehead.
I looked up at Dadiji. Tears were flowing down the soft creases in her cheeks. “You know, Bela was my mother’s dowry,” she spoke in a near whisper. “Then I brought her with me when I married your Baba. She bore my howdah all the way to this village….” I already held Dadijis memories. She had told me the story so often. Of the thousand pieces of gold that her father carried on platters of silver for the engagement, of the baraat that extended for two kilometers. And had travelled three hundred kilometers to her village. “They took almost two months, to come and go, and for the wedding.”
And when the time came for Dadiji to leave for her new home, my grandfather had asked his bride’s father to send Bela with his new bride. “Babuji, something familiar will help her settle,” he had murmurred, finding a surer way into Dadiji’s heart than all the promises of love could find. Then, many years later, Bela had won the race to my mother’s house when Baba took the baraat for my parents’ wedding. She had been my own first friend, as Dadiji had held me up for inspection. “See Bela, we have finally got a girl in this family.”
But now, Bela, in her old, mellow years, had gone mad. Of a pain that none could get close enough to identify. “Abha, what can I do,” Baba’s voice was hoarse with strain. With each passing moment, Bela drew closer to the tight circle of mud huts around our house.
“You do what you must, ji,” my grandmother had said, her voice calm, steady, strangely strong. Baba had fired then. The loud bang followed by a wild trumpeting noise, as my grandmother held my face tight against her sari, turning my face away from the fields. And then silence. A long, sorrowing, grieving silence. Then Baba had walked away, down the steps. “I will see to moving her,” he had mumbled, as my grandmother stood still, turned to stone. “Abha?”
“There was no other way, ji,” she had whispered, her voice catching only a little on the word. But she had cried later, for many days, sitting all by herself. Baba had stayed near, but away from her. And I had been scared, until she had pulled me into her lap.
“See Krishna, first we must do our duty. Follow dharma. And most times, it hurts. But to love something doesn’t mean to give up dharma,” she had explained to me then as she held me close to her, tight against her, tears streaming down her eyes and mine. “Bela had to be stopped, you understand, no?”
I had nodded against her breast, her sari soft against my cheek, the gold necklace she always wore biting into my chin. “When I grow up, there will be no dharma. I will do only what I want,” I had whispered fiercely. She had laughed then.
“Ay Krishna, once you came to this earth, and left us forever in a world of injustice. Now, this Krishna, my Krishna, wants a world completely without dharma.”
“Sunny Singh’s first novel Nani’s Book of Suicides was dominated by the narrator’s Nani (maternal grandmother), tormenting her with ‘stories of times gone by’, emphasizing the Rajput sense of honour. In Singh’s second novel With Krishna’s Eyes the protagonist, Krishna, loves her ‘Dadiji’ (paternal grandmother), who has her own concept of honour. In a society where female infanticide and foeticide is rampant, the old woman prays and conducts sacrifices for the birth of a daughter to her eldest son. She believes that a girl should have the same educational opportunities as a boy; when Krishna wants to go to New York for film studies, she encourages her. When she dies, she leaves detailed instructions for Krishna: she is to make a documentary of the last days of Damayanti, a lawyer, who is planning to commit sati. Krishna has to go back to her feudal roots, yet fulfil her aspirations as a modern woman. The novelist presents a vivid picture of rural India, and the villagers’ faith in their feudal master.” — Journal of Commonwealth Literature
“The rich anecdotes and colour provide profound insight into family loyalty, the heavy weight of the past and the encounter with tradition. The emotion of rediscovering one’s roots and the demand for a return to a traditional lifestyle, threatened with extinction by political correctness. Krishna is a young woman searching for her identity while being faithful to the values of her time. The novel is entirely credible and contains characters so well painted that they are genuinely truthful.” — ABC
“The author succeeds as a successful Bollywood film does. One is eager to reach the climax. Krishna, torn between the rebel and the traditional, the disgust of what her family and clan so strongly believes in and the fear of losing them all, feels so real that one could almost touch her.” — Marie Claire