As a child, Vidya exists to serve her family, watch over her younger brother, and make sense of a motherless world. One day she catches sight of a class where the students are learning Kathak, a precise, dazzling form of dance that requires the utmost discipline and focus. Kathak quickly becomes the organizing principle of Vidya’s life, even as she leaves home for college, falls in love with her best friend, and battles demands on her time, her future, and her body. Can Vidya give herself over to her art and also be a wife in Bombay’s carefully delineated society? Can she shed the legacy of her own imperfect, unknowable mother? Must she, herself, also become a mother?
Intensely lyrical and deeply sensual, with writing as rhythmically mesmerizing as Kathak itself, The Archer is about the transformative power of art and the possibilities that love can open when we’re ready.
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Poetic. Solitary. Universal. A tale of restless passion and rhythmic persistence to experience the excellence of being oneself through a performing art that transports through life. Thank you to Algonquin Books for the opportunity to read this early!
The Archer is a coming-of-age novel set in 1960-70s Bombay and told through a protagonist who loves kathak.
Vidya, the protagonist of The Archer, wants to be perfect. Whether this desire of hers stemmed from the patriarchial, gender-conforming norms that she was repeatedly educated about while growing up in an Indian family where poverty limited everything, or whether this want of hers was purely a recitation of what she was truly passionate about: kathak, an ancient dance form, is a wonder that doesn’t really hold value. Because Vidya understood perfection to be the key to independence; freedom from the familial expectations, the gendered life—freedom to perform a dance that is infused with story-telling.
Like kathak, that is both a roar and a calm, Vidya found herself to be torn between the wildness of taking up societal responsibilities without desiring any of it, and the tranquillity of finding a peace that only follows what the heart aspires the most. Through the years, her stubbornness drives her towards a rhythm that rushes through facets that are similar yet conjectured to be different: queerness and love, duty and devotion, life and struggle. Her journey is far from what the world wants it to be, linear, expected, assigned. It’s actually synonymous to a katha—the Sanskrit word for story—as a long-form narrative so complex that only a dance like kathak, only a writing so coherent, can help unfold.
The author’s unique prose, the very same that won my heart in A House is a Body , precisely recounts the occurrences and hazily portrays the inner thoughts, much like the turns in kathak where the watcher awes at the dancer’s posture, balance, the mere ability to not fall away; while the dancer sees a flurry of surroundings, blurriness covering their eyes. The run-on sentences were far from overwhelming, they were coordinating with the various stages of Vidya’s life like the sound of ghungroos, tiny bells tied on a traditional anklet, matching the beats of a tabla, the drum that guides a performance through its music. Set in 1960s-70s Bombay, the backdrop of a city that truly builds dreams is wonderfully painted along the infinite sea that opens a metaphorical gateway to hope, to escape, to find oneself.
Tales within a tale heightens the impressiveness. Whether it’s the story of Eklavya, the archer from Mahabharata who was asked to give up his right thumb as a display of devotion to his teacher—the guru of royal children, the guru who had rejected Eklavya despite his excellent archery skills for he couldn’t afford to let anyone surpass the skills of his royal students. It’s this tale that lends the novel, The Archer, its title. Or the story of Dhritrashtra as the blind king whose wife willingly took blindness by wearing a blindfold until her death. This peregrination through girlhood, through a transformation to express, through the universal need for individuality, is further lined with mythical undertones that are subtly desiring attention.
Overall, The Archer brilliantly and unabashedly places art at the highest point of passion while building a raw, mesmerising, and honest coming-of-age tale through a poetic prose that comments on societal bindings, pure independence, unapologetic persistence.
my rating ↣ ★★★★☆