The idea of women “having it all” has been interpreted for years through the modern, western lens. Work and family in constant opposition, article after article devoted to side hustles and other ways to eke productivity out of every ounce of life. But what is missing in these cliched discussions? Shruti Swamy’s The Archer is a searing portrait of the woman artist—how these identities, too, are in opposition—and, in this work, she brings to life new ideas of fulfillment.
The Archer hones in on Vidya, who exists with the odds stacked against her. Female, poor, dark-skinned, and later motherless. She takes up the Indian classical dance Kathak as a child, and in this decision “becomes I”. She sees herself as the protagonist of her own life, and from this point on she lives in pursuit of dance, creativity, and mastery. In her college years, she pleads with a dance teacher, “If I couldn’t perform I would dance every day in the kitchen even if no one saw me. If I was injured I would dance every day in my mind.”
Obstacles fall over Vidya’s path, from domestic work as the sole girl in her household, to academic difficulties, to the constraints of marriage and pregnancy. With the intermittent guidance of teachers and a single close friend, Vidya’s true companion is her art. The novel itself is a character study, a real-time tale of self-actualization, and revels in the specific and minute. Even India she brings down to its smallest circles—a single village, an engineering college, a rich man’s house. In this specificity, the writing shines, aiming not to make broad, sweeping statements but to fill in the colors of our artist’s life. Vidya forms few close bonds throughout the book, but each one is exquisite. Her brother, mother, best friend, teachers—these connections change shape throughout the book and reflect Vidya’s own changing focus and aspirations. All these individuals demand something of her time and energy, and it is up to her to give credence to each. In this way, we see not “having it all,” but striving to live a life of our own design.
Anchoring the novel is Swamy’s evocation of the story of Eklavya. Like many tales in The Mahabharata, this one is steeped in heartbreaking sacrifice. Drona, guru to the illustrious Pandava family, encounters a self-taught archer in the woods named Eklavya, who honed his craft in the presence of no one but a clay guru, molded to look like Drona himself. Fearing Eklavya’s abilities against his favorite student, Drona offers to mentor the young archer in exchange for his right thumb. Knowing this will forever limit his abilities, Eklavya cuts his thumb at once. Vidya, without means or privilege, with only her own desire, is akin to Eklavya in the forest. His trials are hers, made specific to the rigid societal expectations of women. Even in the boundary-breaking environment of an engineering college, Vidya is chastised for her womanhood. When she scores an eighty-nine on an exam, a professor thunders “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Made such a big fuss to be allowed in. Now here you are, taking some chap’s spot, some chap who needs this degree that you’re obtaining as timepass. Ruining some poor fellow’s life for your timepass.”
These aggressions in her dancing and professional lives push Vidya further towards domesticity, though she resists. And as the book careens towards doom, we wonder if Swamy will end the tale on a dour note or bend towards hope. As a whole, the novel infuriates, exhilarates, and challenges our ideas of art and artistry. It immerses us in a microcosm of a setting and in an introspective sole protagonist. It does justice to an age-old myth and recontextualizes its lessons. Following her debut collection A House is a Body, Shruti Swamy has defined herself as a bold new voice in not only South Asian diaspora literature, but modern literature as a whole.
by Shruti Swamy
Published September 07, 2021
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms