At the center of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini, translated from the Bangla by Arunava Sinha, is fate. A short preface to the novel explains the complexity of the word, ‘niyoti’ in the original. ‘Destiny’ has an unfortunate Disney connotation nowadays, yet ‘fate’ does not capture it fully either:
In India, though, nioti – or niyati in Sanskrit – can be unpacked to mean a lot more. The etymology provides a literal meaning of being led or carried, which can of course be interpreted as an absence of agency – the anguish about which drives this novel. […] In its earthly manifestation for human beings, niyoti/niyati is a constraining factor for the individual but still not real, only illusory.
The individual here is Homi, an urban married woman working in a successful Kolkatan TV company. She is progressively preoccupied by a vision of a hermit, who she sees lurking in the unlikeliest of places. Having dinner at a restaurant with his husband, she looks out the window and sees it once again – depicted with undertones of horror. I’m quoting this particular instance mainly to show Sinha’s great translation:
Thick streams of water rolled down the glass, and the red and yellow lights of the cars outside merged with the anarchic currents of liquid, appearing as smudged dabs of colour on a translucent canvas. Homi gazed at the wall, forgetting even to blink. Suddenly a pair of covetous eyes materialised through the water and the light beams, eyes that she had seen barely half an hour ago. Homi was unable to speak.
The hermit, who is either a real or imagined manifestation of fate, is described in sexually grotesque terms. He “stared at her with ghoulish desire in his eyes.” He haunts her as she has sex with her husband. Distressed by her inner struggle, she visits a palmist, who has more positive news for her: “You are your own fate”:
As I said, the influence that most people exert is missing from your life, madam. You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them. You simply don’t acknowledge the existence of others. You are the only person in your world.
Homi embarks on a journey against a predetermined future, and the story proceeds into different episodes depicting her attempts at living unchained by fate, including a trip to the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). There, outside Kolkata’s highly industrialized urban milieu, it seems Homi may after all find some peace of mind. However, it must be stated that I am not clear at all on geographical or cultural details here – let it be shamefully admitted that this is, if my memory serves, the first novel I have read by a Bengali author.
The Yogini hooks by its latent strangeness, balancing finely somewhere between reality and delusion. Labelling it as magical realism, however, would undermine a metaphoric interpretation of the hermit, which I would argue to stand for Homi’s emerging emancipation of pure female sexuality, unlimited by any specific partner she has along the way and unconstrained by the institution of marriage. But labelling it as a tale of female liberation would undermine it too. It is one of those novels that do not explain everything but rather welcomes different interpretations – a fine feature in a novel if you ask me.