Devadasis, or female servants of God, once revered in ancient India and held a high social status, were degraded to prostitution later on. There is a whole history of their evolution, prosperity, and decline. The author Jayanthi Sankar attempted to depict the history of Devadasi in the novel Misplaced Heads.
This system found more prevalence in the southern part of India and Odisha. Little girls were donated to temples by their parents, who then spent their entire life in the service of God. They were married to the immortal god and were trained as classical dancers to appease the almighty.
The author Jayanthi Sankar focused on the period of the Chola Dynasty when the devadasi tradition flourished. But continuous Muslim invasion in India and British colonization adulterated the original form of devadasi tradition. It became means to sexual exploitation of young girls and women, paving the way to prostitution.
The story travels back and forth between medieval times and the present. Medieval time concentrates on Devadasi’s part and how gradual change in situation throws the devadasis in morbid condition. The present time was about two proficient Bharatnatyam dancers and their lives.
The novel has less narration and more dialogues. Apart from face to face conversation, the author has used various other mediums of conversation like chats on WhatsApp, exchange of emails, telephonic calls between the characters to take the story forward. Though I missed narration, it was a new style of storytelling for me. So it intrigued me and is relevant to our present technology-dominated era.
Not all the information has been provided by the author while narrating the story. Through the conversation between various characters, you have to infer and put pieces in the puzzle. Struggle, conflicts, heartbreaks, pain, anger, sadness, plenty of emotions were repleted in the conversations for the readers to feel and come to conclusions. An attentive reader would enjoy doing so.
Dancers, especially, those into classical dance, will be enthralled. Jayanti has put in special effort to describe dance sequences and mudras. It was impressive.
The historical part of the book and the present time, both were interesting to read. But what kept nagging me as I failed to connect various loops. There are several threads in the story, many characters, but they all seem to be like two ends of a river. Individually they were all complete but not together. Tying all the loops, a connection, ironing out all the complex greases would have done wonders to the book.
Several incidents like Chola rulers tweeting and then having a telephonic conversation, Chola prince communicating through emails with the protagonist in the present time, and few more such incidents were weird and went unexplained.
Misplaced Heads is an intelligent book and the author’s writing style kept me engrossed in it. A little more refinement in the plot, some dots to connect everything would have been great. Nevertheless, it is a well-researched book. Life of Devadasis, how they flourished and were respected during the Chola rule, and with the change of time how they struggle later on during colonization and aftermath portrayed through various threads.
Overall the author adopted a different storytelling technique. You might find it slow-paced, but I didn’t mind as the story required absorption and time to process and draw conclusions.