A World Elsewhere
- iUniverse, USA; 2015
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A World Elsewhere is an extraordinary evocation of Indian social life in the 1960s and 1970s. Set in the state of Orissa, the novel depicts the life of the Guru family, especially their daughter, Asha. Intelligent, curious and sensitive, Asha’s happy childhood turns into a lonely and troubled adolescence as her future is mapped out by the social conventions of the day: she will be an educated wife, mother and housekeeper, married to a man of her family’s choosing. When Asha goes to college, she meets Anand and falls in love with him. Much against the wishes of her family, she follows her instincts, and marries him – a decision that proves catastrophic, triggering a series of episodes that effectively cast her out of her fold to look for a world elsewhere. We are led through a tragic but redemptive story as Asha, shaped by her unfailing pursuit of love, truth and justice, responds to her unexpected reversal in fortune by having to carve out a future alone in a world she knew nothing about. We live through Asha’s trials as she journeys through life’s vicissitudes. A World Elsewhere is a timeless and universal tale of the human spirit discovering itself. It deals with honesty and accuracy some of the big issues that concern us today – issues such as the status of women, marriage and dowry, divorce, abortion and sexual violence against women. A World Elsewhere explores our notions of love and betrayal, innocence and experience, caste and class, education and ignorance, honesty and corruption, and the role luck plays in life.
Comments and Reviews
The traditional culture of India comes to life in this richly descriptive novel of an independent young woman coming of age.
A World Elsewhere begins with the very pregnant mother of the protagonist awaiting the birth of her expected daughter, now one month overdue. The delayed birth is the talk of the family and the neighborhood, and when she finally arrives, the narrator remarks it is “as if the female child, knowing the perils of the world, was delaying her arrival.” The birth of Asha heralds a family epic masterfully executed by author Shanta Acharya. The novel follows Asha’s life from childhood to adulthood in 1960s India.
Through rich descriptions, the setting is made vividly alive (and helpful back matter elucidates concepts for those unfamiliar with Indian culture), as Asha comes of age around pulsating festivals, abject poverty, and a strict social caste. Family dynamics are richly wrought from the beginning of the novel when tension is placed between father and mother. The place of women in Asha’s society is immediately established—daughters are welcomed only when the family line has already been secured by sons, as is the case in Asha’s family. The position of women in the society, from birth to arranged marriage, lays the foundation for the crux of the novel’s drama.
As a character, Asha always faces things with purity, wisdom, and independence that make her easy to empathize with and a fascinating character to watch unfold. At one point, she reflects on “her cousin’s remark recently that they had grown up like trees without needing much care or attention. Personally, she thought it was no bad thing, and fancied being among the tallest, looking at the stars.”
The novel is laced with brilliant insights (“If you knew your weaknesses, you learned to protect yourself. Asha worked away at her weaknesses. No one taught her how to protect herself from her strengths”) and retains the feel of a classic coming of age novel and marriage plot, well suited to the quotes chosen for its epigraph (including selections from Woolf, Austen, Lessing, and Eliot). Though hesitant as a child, Asha comes into her own in school. She grows to love studying literature and falls in love with a man over a mutual love of books, despite her parents having arranged a marriage for her. Asha’s struggles with a disappointed family and the reality of a marriage based on love rather than tradition and security offer a satisfying narrative of an independent woman who takes her own path to happiness.
The novel offers a rewarding read for readers of traditional English novels in the vein of Austen and Eliot, and for those drawn to Indian literature, Acharya weaves a beautiful narrative set in the culture that does not linger too long to explain it, keeping the flow of the narrative intact. In this vein, readers of Umrigar and Mistry ought to take note.
Shanta Acharya has written a powerful novel about an intelligent Indian women growing up in a society which aims to marry her well, regardless of what "well" may actually mean. Acharya's remorseless account of a failed marriage is very affecting. So too is her depiction of the loneliness experienced by someone who aspires to be herself rather than what family and social conventions expect of her. This is an absorbing and challenging novel, which deals in real feelings rather than easy answers.
Dr Alastair Niven LVO OBE, Served as a judge of the Booker Prize in 1994 and of the Man Booker Prize in 2014
Full review in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing – Special Issue: Beyond Britishness (Volume 52: Issue 1, 2016)
A World Elsewhere is undoubtedly a powerful Indian Bildungsroman, which charts the lonely struggles of a young Brahmin girl learning to navigate home, family, education, sex and marriage and somehow, finally, finding a future which is hers alone. An issue permeating the novel is, quite simply, how we learn to live in the world.
Professor Michael Worton, CBE, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur
(Full review in Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature (Volume 10, Number 1, June 2016)
India achieved political independence in 1947, but its multi-peopled, hierarchical, deeply traditional society was for decades afterwards in a state of bafflement and indecision. In Shanta Acharya’s absorbing, completely convincing novel of India in transition, Armita (Asha) Guru, the sensitive, dreamy heroine, is the much loved daughter of Aditya, a lecturer at Harrison College in Cuttack, East India, and his traditionally-minded wife, Karuna. After a happy childhood, Asha’s intelligence and her gifts as a writer win her high marks at college and a job as a lecturer herself, but her parents still assume they will select a suitable husband for her, after which, like her mother, she will settle for a life as a mother and housewife. Asha has other ideas. She falls in love with a college classmate of a lower class if not caste than herself and insists on marrying Anand, whose sexual brutality and unfriendly family drive her back to her parents. The disaster of this marriage is paralleled by the failure of her brother’s arranged one, so that the question of which is preferable, an arranged marriage or a marriage of choice, is never resolved. The World Elsewhere of the novel’s title is similarly ambiguous. To Asha, it is the glorious world of English poetry and freedom, temptingly offered to her in scholarships to Harvard and finally to Oxford; but for English and American readers, ‘elsewhere’ stands for modern India itself and for all the divided feelings and puzzling contradictions that this author brings to life through her thoroughly believable characters, together with the rituals, the crowds, the quarrels, the passions and conflicting expectations of that magnificent, infuriating country.
Anne Stevenson, poet, academic, essayist, literary critic, biographer
At the heart of Shanta Acharya’s engaging first novel, A World Elsewhere, are issues which she has explored in her poetry: the instability of language, the elusiveness of ‘truth’, the capriciousness of fate. These stem from problems that beset the novel’s talented heroine, Asha, when she mistakes the existence of romantic love upon first meeting a young man; the emotion that usually springs from the heart is in her case based on only the flimsiest of acquaintances and a misjudgement of character. Her will to independence and determination to pursue her own course in life, leads to the fatal decision to marry him.
This troubling story of a young woman’s unfortunate (but not irreversible) mistake can be read as a comment upon the tradition of arranged marriages, for Asha’s disastrous choice seems to suggest that youthful rebellion is not necessarily the most successful pathway to personal happiness. The heroine’s overturning of her parents’ wish that she should enter into an arranged marriage and dismissal of the dowry backfires and causes her to question the very meaning of her existence.
Set in India in the 1960s and 1970s when Indira Gandhi held ministerial posts and later became prime minister, the novel shines a light onto the problems caused by the strict moral and behavioural codes which governed Indian (mainly Hindu) society and the frustrations and tensions that many, especially young women, felt in that era. Stepping out of their preordained roles was an experience as momentous as going to the moon. When Asha comes to write a story about a heroine who decides to wed someone of her own choice she crystallises the moment of independence with: ‘That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind’, adapting Neil Armstrong’s words just one day after they appeared in the newspaper.
Acharya’s novel is written from an insider’s view and registers the contradictions of coming from a loving, middle-class family which, nevertheless, experiences grief, due to the parents’ unhappiness, and unsuccessful marriages of Asha and one of her brothers. The problems of communication between the generations, the barriers in getting to know someone of the opposite sex, the taboos on sex before marriage, violence within marriage, the dishonesties and subterfuges that come with career ambition when motivated by jealousy or revenge, as when Asha’s university exam results are deliberately marked down: these are at the core of the novel’s psychological tensions and swirling emotions. But there are uplifting moments too, for another destiny awaits Asha. Despite her youthful idealism in affairs of the heart, she is gifted enough to carve out a vocational path, by first taking up a lectureship in her own state, then winning a scholarship to Oxford, even though it means a painful parting of another sort, from her beloved parents and brothers, and in fact from India itself. Acharya’s heroine reaches beyond the limitations of her upbringing and society and forges her way to academic success, something she did not originally aspire to do.
This debut novel has been described as ‘having the feel of a classic coming of age novel and marriage plot’. To this I would add that it asks questions about a key issue in Indian society, even today when more people exercise free will in marriage. Are arranged marriages a good thing? This is the theme of the great Bollywood blockbuster of 1995, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (‘the one with a true heart will win the bride’), one of the longest-running Hindi films. Like the film, where parental opposition is also overruled (but the freely chosen marriage succeeds), A World Elsewhere gives insight into intergenerational conflict. It also offers moments of self-discovery such as the heroine’s words at the end: ‘All my life I’ve been waiting. All the things that happen to me and those that do not, all the people I meet and those I don’t, keep defining me inexplicably. Life is what happens to us while we wait for things to happen.’ Asha’s need for love, and the confusion, unhappiness and suffering that come from her misjudgement of life are conveyed with tact and honesty. And there are fascinating images of the Indian domestic and social life of the heroine and her extended family: births, deaths, funerals, Hindu religious festivals, and the minutiae of marriage negotiations are all deftly woven into the background to this tale of romantic love gone wrong.
Janet Wilson, Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Northampton
Published in Wasafiri (Volume 31, Number 3, September 2016, pp 93-94)
This well-written novel immerses us in the life of a Brahmin girl growing up in Orissa. Its rich detail brings to life Asha’s world, both outer and inner. We follow the development of Asha from before her birth, through her struggles in a complex family, and her education, to her disastrous marriage and beyond. At the centre of the book is the issue of how a young person in a traditional setting can find happiness in marriage. Neither Asha, who chooses her own husband, nor her brother, whose marriage is arranged, find marital happiness. The life choices open to an intelligent young woman are shown to be particularly problematic. The depiction of the domestic violence to which Asha is subjected is extremely powerful. The way her husband behaves, and the way she tries to survive it, has a far wider resonance than this particular Indian setting. There’s something timeless and universal about the way Anand behaves, and the way Asha tries to manage. Excellent!
Carole Satyamurti, poet and author of Mahabharata, A Modern Retelling (W.W. Norton & Co, 2015)
Shanta Acharya’s rite-of-passage novel, A World Elsewhere, set in the north-eastern Indian state of Odisha [Orissa], is an impressive account of a young woman’s experience of growing up in a place and time of bewildering change. It follows her developing awareness of ideals, betrayals, truths, lies, self-sacrifice, brutality, love and despair, with more than a hint of sly homage and withering contrast to the ambitions and predicaments of the heroines of Jane Austen.
Kevin Ireland, poet, short story writer, novelist
Shanta Acharya, who has so many strings to her bow – financial, literary and as a considerable poet – and plays them all beautifully, has written her first novel, A World Elsewhere, about a girl growing up in India. As you would expect, it's elegant, exquisite and more importantly perhaps, authentic. The sense of actually being there transports one brought up in Western society into a very different place, to empathise with both the heroine's love for that world and her fear of how limiting it might be for a girl becoming a woman there. Acharya's love for languages and their cultural nuances is everywhere emotionally present. Surprising, enchanting, this is a novel to be cherished and remembered.
Leah Fritz, poet, author, essayist
“Life is what happens to us while we’re waiting for things to happen,” concludes the heroine of Shanta Acharya’s debut novel, A World Elsewhere, as she starts a new phase of her life. Acharya gives us an insider’s view of an educated Brahmin family in the 1960s and the life of a young woman who charts her own course through the social conventions of that time and place. The conventions are just flexible enough for an ambitious woman with a good education and a supportive family to make important decisions about her own life. However, tradition still exerts a powerful influence, and much of the interest of the novel is the conflict between the dead hand of conventionality and the individual life of a young woman.
Sarah Lawson, poet, translator, reviewer - londongrip.co.uk, Review of A World Elsewhere
In this novel set in India, a young woman’s disastrous choice of husband forces her to confront deep-seated expectations about love, marriage, and womanhood.
Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Armita “Asha” Guru belongs to a well-educated Brahmin family living in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states. Resources are tight. Patronage and corruption make life difficult for everyone, women especially. Asha’s early freedom gives way to the demands of school, where she excels, and endless housekeeping chores. Perfection is expected and praise never offered as part of her training in how to be a woman in an unforgiving world. Yet Asha is full of romantic dreams, sure that if she marries for love she will avoid the demeaning fate of women in arranged marriages. In college, she meets Anand and falls in love with him, insisting on the marriage despite her parents’ objections: she “wanted to hear wedding bells, not warning bells.” Anand and her in-laws treat Asha with cruelty, lies, and abuse, but a chance to study at Oxford gives her new hope. In her first novel, Acharya provides well-written vignettes of Orissa (a trip to the jungle is especially striking) and many penetrating insights about Indian culture: for example, Asha’s painstaking father muses that “To be born methodical and organized was a curse in India.” Step by step, through thoughtful characterization, Acharya shows how an intelligent woman can become trapped.
This is Shanta Acharya's first novel, enchanting, exotic, searing— a coming-of-age-tale of a gifted young woman in the India of the 1960s and 1970s, a social critique, and an unrelenting feminist look at abuse. It is realistic yet touched by the mythic, a major extension of Acharya’s oeuvre, having already made her mark as a poet.
A World Elsewhere is a powerful statement about women’s identity and rights.
Mona Dash, poet, short story writer, novelist - confluence.mobi, Review of A World Elsewhere
There is much to admire in A World Elsewhere. Shanta Acharya has an enviable capacity to recall and imagine an India of the past in a way that throws light on India today. She is particularly good at exploring the relationships and power dynamics among her central characters. This is an evocative novel that moves beyond stress and distress in its portrait of a young woman’s ultimate resilience.
Mark Abley, poet, critic, journalist, author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.
A World Elsewhere is an extraordinary novel about a Brahmin girl coming of age in modern India. What makes the novel so impressive is the unsentimental way in which it treats the challenges faced by women who push against the parameters of a patriarchal system. The heroine in this novel grows up in a traditional family -- her father is a professor, and her mother a homemaker. She, however, chooses her own path. She excels academically despite corruption at college, refuses to succumb to the pressures of arranged marriage, marries a man of her own choosing, discovers that her husband is physically and emotionally abusive, extricates herself from the entanglements of a bad marriage, stands up against envy and gossip at work, and finally leaves the country to start her life anew in England. Though at times heartbreaking, this is also a story of resilience and hope. The fact that it is set in India makes it especially illuminating for anyone interested in the complexities of that nation. But in truth it is a novel that we all need to read to understand the challenges that women so often face, even in the most technologically sophisticated of cultures. If you’re looking for a novel with a strong heroine and social relevance, one that will leave you both moved and inspired, Shanta Acharya’s A World Elsewhere is one not to miss.
Raphael I. Gunner, Psy.D., Ph.D., clinical psychologist, lecturer, occasional reviewer - India Currents: The Complete Indian American Magazine (Oct 7, 2016)
A World Elsewhere has been described as a coming of age novel and also a feminist novel, addressing the situation of women and their responses to the cultural expectations of their society. While this type of categorising of genre has its uses, it can also limit perceptions. In my view, this first novel by Shanta Acharya, an established poet, is offering something broader, and it is more interesting to see it in relation to the work of other Indian writers writing in English whose backgrounds vary but who share in different degrees their own and English culture, a mixed heritage created by colonial rule.
Shanta Acharya has a deep emotional and intellectual attachment to India and has written about the influence of Indian thought on Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this novel, as in her poetry, there is an idiosyncratic combination of a matter-of-fact and often ironic awareness of things with an abstract philosophical mode of thought related to a cultural and genetic reality where fate is both in our stars and in ourselves.
Anita Money, writer and reviewer - Re-Markings (Vol. 15, No. 2, September 2016)
None at present
- Friday 30th October 2015, 7.15pm
- Albion Beatnik Bookstore, 34 Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6AA
- Meet The Author: An Evening of Prose and Poetry with Shanta Acharya - Further Information
- Tuesday 22nd September 2015, 7.15pm
- Swindon Central Library, Regent Circus, Swindon SN1 1QG
- An Evening of Prose and Poetry with Shanta Acharya - Further Information
- Thursday 18th June 2015, 6.30pm
- The Nehru Centre, 8 South Audley Street, London W1K 1HF
- Further Information