As a young adolescent, I was fascinated by Abhigyanam Shakuntalam, a timeless tale of love and longing - the legendary beauty of Shakuntala, her flawless, doused, olive skin, her languid, lotus shaped eyes, the soft curve of her hips, the way her ankles slanted desirously. The color of the clouds reflected on her undulating back. Her tresses tousled.
The valour of the brave King Dushyant, his bronzed, well sculpted shoulders, the way his chiseled face glinted as he made fierce love to the forest princess, in the shadows of dense, shadowy trees. The night he presented her with an expensive ring. A solitaire, perhaps, as an emblem of his devotion and the intimacy they had fleetingly shared as man and woman. The way he never looked back - walking away from the woman he once loved to more worldly affairs.
As a young girl, I probably only saw the classic as a woman's soiree of suffering in love - the eternal stereotype of a romance novel. I hated Dushyant - the convenience with which he could not even recognise Shakuntala when she appears in his stately court, vulnerably cradling their newborn. All because she had misplaced the ring - a symbol of their physical union, swallowed thanks to an unfortunate divine curse, by none other than a fish. Hoping in my heart of hearts, that memory returned and the star-crossed lovers were reunited.
|You've Got The Wrong Girl; Hachette India; Rs 350|
As I grew up, read many more translations of indigenous classics, I was still transported back to Shakuntala - time after time - always asking myself the question about Dushyant'sinnate heroism - whether he was actually the villain in a sense. And then last year, on a visit to the city of my birth, I happened to watch a popular Bong flick - the usual, really. The girl meeting the unworthy hero, falling in love head over heels, the family disapproving of the celestial match, the lovers separated, the girl misunderstanding his intentions, being married to the richer, more deserving suitor, the wedding day, the girl pining for her erstwhile lover, now estranged who suddenly appears, miraculously almost, the act of elopement, the final reunion, the victory, the tears, the final joining of hearts in the bloodiest climax.
What if the rules were flouted, I conjectured? If women alone weren't always stereotypically projected as the emotionally vulnerable creatures in popular culture? If men weren't perennially expected to be the swashbuckling, knights in shining armor? If they could be as confused, influenced easily and if they could find and lose the right girl, with just as much vulnerability, sans being judged. Why did romance always have to be a woman's domain alone?
Had the overdose of chick-lit that has flooded contemporary literature of late just reinforced the age-old gender boundaries - made it tougher for men to come of age? Were we always looking to be saved as a sex? What if the man too needs some emotional saving? What if sex is over-rated, and women initiated it?
What if the copious jungle where Dushyant and Shakuntala first set eyes on each other was actual the urban jungle we all inhabit - complex, alone, messy, relationships fragile. Intimacy virtual - the human connect missing most of the times.
Type, instead of touch. Text, instead of talk. Sex, instead of making love. The pressure. The rush of simple, everyday life. Being consumed by the complications of being in a no strings attached, instant gratification dependent culture that festers in easy hook-ups and casual romps - where open means a free license. Where hearts being broken are rarely heard of. Or talked about. Where poetry is fast fading and book stores shutting shops. In a largely patriarchal and misogynistic culture, what if we turned our heroes to dust? Saw them as boys coping with matters of the heart - clumsy everyday people just trying to make sense of feelings and girls. As confused, as complex. As fragile, as fierce. As shallow, as strong.
And so, I placed the protagonist of my forthcoming book, You've Got The Wrong Girl in a modern setting as a popular romance writer who scripts male mush with ease and yet struggles desperately to find back a woman he once loved and lost - the search somewhat like a compass to his own emotions - a rollercoaster of a Shakuntalam, infested with the trials and tribulations of modern day existence - fast cars, living in more than one city, urban homelessness, the price of fame, no holds barred sex and the longing to find the missing piece of one's own heart - the aloneness of being a single man in his mid 30's - a fractured story tale with silver linings in the form of chance encounters and unspoken goodbyes.
What if being a man is a confusing thing. Petrifying, actually. With a million versions to choose from. Good boy. Bad boy. Playboy. Macho boy. Mama's boy. Mean boy. Introvert. Extrovert. The one who buys roses on Valentine's Day. The one who pops the question with confidence.
The guy who takes you shopping, patiently waiting outside the trial room. The one who wants children. The one who calls back instantly. The one who talks about his feelings. The player. The cheat. The liar. The lover. The friend. The boyfriend. It's a question of multiple choices, constantly. Who would you rather be? How will they remember you? What will they say to their girlfriends? Or mothers? Or daughters? Whose hero are you fated to be? How many hearts have you broken? When will you settle down? Do you drink a lot? Smoke? Wear pink? Do you believe in male contraceptives? Do you drive? Like to travel?
What if men and women weren't that different? Would the game have been simpler? The results different? The end happier? What if Shakuntalam was Dushyant's story? Instead of the other way around…