Where do divisive thoughts come from? Why do extreme nationalism and xenophobia take hold in a community? Why is misogyny, homophobia and intolerance so rife? Playing out in Bengal in recent times, Shakti asks us to consider the role the manipulative power of reality TV and social media plays in instilling ultraconservative views, and then asks what would happen if that manipulative force could extend into minds, manipulating us from the inside …
Shakti is full of people who are not what they seem; when we first meet the main protagonist, Jaya, she is a male ‘agony aunt’, Chandra Sir, hiding her identity to save her job as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school. Of course, the woman who pretends to be a man is being written by a man, so the ‘masks’ are already multi-layered. ‘Chandra Sir’ is approached by a young girl, Shivani, who is experiencing strange powers, and when Jaya misses some clues, things do not end well for Shivani.
Then Jaya’s friend and part-time housekeeper, Arati, has a religious encounter with a snake goddess, Manasa, who gives her a choice that could lead to her finding her long-lost child, Tunituni, and she asks Jaya for help – but how can you tell if your instructions are from a god or a demon? The price Arati ends up paying is complex, political and very familiar. And then Jaya joins Shivani and Arati when she discovers she has been given her own power – but is it a power or a curse?
Jaya is set on a whirlwind path to help Arati and atone for her part in Shivani’s fate, and it rapidly becomes apparent that “nobody doles out superpowers for free.” As we follow Jaya, we experience a deeply misogynist society, where all men are predators: the father, the neighbour, the doorman, the grocer … And all women have experience of abuse, of themselves or those around them – and many carry the guilt of having ignored the abuse of others due to fear for themselves or their situation. Poverty leads people to do horrendous acts and provides a layer of scapegoats for those better off.
In the past Jaya has ignored abuse around her in fear of losing privilege, even spending a period ingratiating herself with her abusive father. In the past Jaya has also done unspeakable things to protect those around her. But has Jaya been given a power now due to her ability to ignore evil, or due to her once being a perpetrator of it? And what political role is she being asked to play? Is it as part of a conspiracy to align Bengal to the right? What will be her reward?
Shakti talks about Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, and the efforts of Modi followers to infiltrate left-leaning Bengal, the “PM” even makes an appearance at one stage. But, “Turn it into a hashtag and see what people say” – the messages of divisive politics and using ‘fake-news’ to polarise people applies to many countries, and misogyny and gender intolerance is universal. The political machinations and methods feel familiar to the reader, what is novel is the idea that those methods might spill into mental manipulation that approaches, and makes use of, religious experience.
Jaya is a wonderfully complex character, she herself doesn’t know if she is genuine in her mission to use her superpower for good, or if she just likes being powerful for once – knowing that the haunted, the broken, the rapist, the torturer – “each can be lured further into hell by the promise of more power.” She is not above using sex to get information from men, sometimes not that successfully: “I feel like a rubbish honey-trap. This is what happens when you try to bypass spy school.”
Jaya decides not to navel-gaze: “I was desperately seeking shelter in make-believe about other lives in order to avoid looking front-on at my own.” She gets addicted briefly to being able to relive her memories on demand, until she realises most are fabricated as there weren’t that many good ones, and gets back on track with her mission – but does she know what that is? Even in wanting to do good is she being manipulated? After all she ends up on a fake reality TV show aimed as sowing sectarian unrest, and she struggles to see how she can turn the tables on the producers without harming any ‘innocents.’
Perhaps just helping people one by one as she goes along for as long as she can is the best she can do – but even her power is not under her control: like an Internet shutdown: “We’re large groups of ‘gifted’ women at the mercy of men who can switch off our powers whenever they like.” Despite the gender flip of power – the book opens with a young man walking confidently through the dark at night, to fall prey to a woman – Jaya is still very much in a male world, not knowing “who are ‘we’ who are ‘they’?” and where people who, “by sheer coincidence, happen to be women – have to obey men like you.”
Shakti is a political thriller, and a deeply disturbing one, one where the reader struggles to ‘touch bottom’ as to who is controlling the conspiracy, whether there is any rational objective hope, how sense can possibly prevail when “the most lasting evil is that in which no one is innocent.” And the real-world resonances are clear – as I write this review, there is breaking news of sectarian violence and multiple deaths over amended citizenship laws in India.
To make sense of our dystopian reality you almost have to believe in the sort of supernatural/invasive manipulation that is at the heart of Shakti – let’s hope that the other shakti mentioned in the book, the “Real Shakti, deeper than any magic” in comparison to which “everything else is just a means, or a shortcut or a trick” can prevail. Shakti is gripping, meticulously written, thought-provoking and the cover of the NZ edition is luscious – I loved it, read it and see what you think …