Sacred & profane

Sacred & profane

Sacred & profane

Citadel of Love Pratibha Ray,
translated by
Monalisa Jena
2015, pp 248, Rs 266

Pratibha Ray’s Citadel of Love is a complex historical narrative with strains of folklore, mysticism, magical realism and romance running through it. The author sets the novel in 13th century Kalinga, when king Narasimha Deva of Ganga dynasty defeated his enemies, strengthened his frontiers and paid homage to the Sun God by commissioning a temple that would proclaim His glory and celebrate the artistry and finesse of Kalinga workmanship. The story is narrated as a series of flashbacks juxtaposed with the here and now of modern India. The effect is crass. The country that once produced heroic kings and sensitive artists has to now contend with puny, shrivelled beings lacking basic humanness.

Charles, an American architect, finds himself in Konark, fascinated by the friezes in the temple. His daily ramblings bring him in touch with Prachivarda, a postgraduate student doing research on the temple. It is a lucky encounter for Charles as Prachi is invaluable in building a bridge between him and the villagers he needs to interview for his work. Little does he suspect that the course of his life is to change dramatically through this. Strengthening his ties to this milieu are Kushi Mausi, the old woman who is generous with her love, Vishnu Maharana, who retells the story of Konark through reading palm-leaf inscriptions, Chitrotpala, the pretty flower girl who wins his heart through her sheer innocence and goodness, and Dharmapala, a mere child who is forced to grow up and support himself and his family by selling erotic picture postcards of the friezes to tourists. Charles finds himself in love with Prachi whose beauty and elegance are comparable to the stone damsels of Konark and who just as stonily ignores all his advances.

Running parallel to this is the story of Kamala Maharana, the chief architect of Konark, and the years loneliness and sublimation of all desires that is demanded of him and his team of artisans, a prerequisite to create that glorious temple. Kamala Maharana has left his young bride behind, with only her memory to inspire him to create. His beautiful though ill-fated wife Chandrabhaga lives out her life in privation as a social outcast and sacrifices her youth, beauty, and longing at the altar of duty. There is no happy ending to this story. Silpa, the ravishing daughter of Nrityacharya, is fascinated by Kamala Maharana’s skill and he recreates her alluring beauty in stone.

In the strict traditions of those times, this is considered a scandal, and Silpa’s father sends her away unwittingly to her death. On his travels through his kingdom, looking for dissent or dissatisfaction, King Narasimha Deva happens upon Kamala Maharana’s wife Chandrabhaga. Unaware that he is the king, she pours out her grievance to him. This truth-telling jolts him out of his placid unawareness of the supreme sacrifice that the building of his temple demands. Touched by Chandrabhaga’s ethereal loveliness just as much by her misfortune, King Narasimha Deva carries a sense of wrong-doing and guilt towards her until her unfortunate death.

Charles, our modern hero, is possibly infected by these luckless love stories. He is mesmerised by Prachi, by Konark, by Vaishnavism, by India itself because Prachi is a part of this. Prachi too feels a softening but keeps herself on a tight rein. She is Chandrabhaga of modern times and waits for the husband who has abandoned her. Curiously, in his hopeless attempt at pursuing Prachi, Charles comes closer to understanding her culture instead, of how the sacred underscores the profane, and how sacrifice is at the heart of love, and most importantly, the various nuances of love. Even the suggestive friezes now acquire a new meaning. This understanding quietens his stormy heart. He bows before Prachi’s silent rejection.

Were the novel to end here, it would have illustrated the social mores that have hardly changed. King Narasimha Deva’s strict code of honour that will not molest Chandrabhaga or Kamala Maharana who will take no undue advantage of Silpa, or Charles of Prachi.

But this novel is uncompromising in its portrayal of truth. Young Chitrotpala is found dead, ruthlessly raped and murdered only a few days before her marriage. Dharmapala is caught stealing a piece of sculpture from the Konark temple and it is quickly evident that there are others behind this crime. Poverty and desperation have snared him. But, before any attempts can be made to release him, he is found crudely murdered.

Konark, a place of sanctity and sacrifice, has become commonplace with rape and murder and suicide. At its worst, the high moral tone of the novel is jarring. At its best, it imbues one with a deep desire to visit Konark, to see the exquisite sculptures, and then step back and spend a moment with its unsung creators.