September 7, 2021
In this transfixing novel, a young woman comes of age in 1960s- and 1970s-era Bombay, a vanished world that is complex and indelibly rendered. Vidya’s childhood is marked by the shattering absence and then the bewildering reappearance of her mother and baby brother at the family home. Restless, observant, and longing for connection with her brilliant and increasingly troubled mother, Vidya navigates the stifling expectations of her life with a vivid imagination until one day she peeks into a classroom where girls are learning kathak, a dazzling, centuries-old dance form that requires the utmost discipline and focus. Her pursuit of artistic transcendence through kathak soon becomes the organizing principle of her life, even as she leaves home for college and falls in complicated love with her best friend. As the uncertain future looms, she must ultimately confront the tensions between romantic love, her art, and the legacy of her own imperfect mother.
Lyrical and deeply sensual, with writing as mesmerizing as kathak itself, Shruti Swamy’s The Archer is a bold portrait of a singular woman coming of age as an artist—navigating desire, duty, and the limits of the body. It is also an electrifying and utterly immersive story about the transformative power of art, and the possibilities that love can open when we’re ready.
Shruti Swamy’s prose is alive, dreamy, and inviting in The Archer, a story about Vidya, a young girl who witnesses girls being taught kathak, a dance, and feels a need build inside her to also learn that dance.
In the first section when Vidya is very young and her mother is absent and then there, Swamy tells the story in a voice that feels like the one from old memories, when one is not sure what is real, when people sometime meld together, or become abstract. In this section, Vidya knows and does not know things or, rather, does not let herself know things for certain.
As she ages, takes over being mother after her mother leaves, begins taking care of her father and brother, and learning to dance, she is a bustle of purpose and activity, but the purpose is also for a future she anticipates.
At university, she feels herself becoming an “I.” And later, she will refer to her body as “she,” apart from the “I” inside. These might seem like abstractions but I felt that definition was so important. The wants and needs separated from the dreams.
Vidya lives in a world where she as a woman is a second-class citizen and this is made worse by the mere fact that her skin is darker. Dancing and education provide her with opportunities she would not otherwise have. But at university she is reminded that her poor scores mean that a boy who could have used her place at school has been denied; that she will only learn and then get married; that her learning really has no practical purpose. It’s an extravagance.
The men in The Archer are purposefully cardboard cut-outs as if they are embodying the exact manner in which they regard women. They are child-men who need attention and to be taken care of. If a woman, in this novel’s case the shy, magnetic Radha, is smarter than they, they are jealous, belligerent, and sometimes bullying. They take mistresses. They treat women poorly. They never see, much less accept, that women have minds, real dreams and desires that may not include them.
While the truly heartbreaking aspect of The Archer is the possibility that Vidya might never achieve the dream that she (and even her mother) desires, the reader feels certain that Vidya who is always aware and processing will always rise.
As a reader and writer, I derived so much pleasure from Shruti Swamy’s prose. It’s like being lost in a beautiful and sometimes frightening dream, much like the story she has written. This is just an exquisite piece of work, so well told and written.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
5 out of 5 butterflies