The Last Devadasi tells the story of Kamala, a girl who was trained in the age-old line of Devadasis, a caste set in place a thousand years ago when girls were first dedicated in south Indian temples to serve the gods and men. We also follow a troubled Dutchman Jules and his struggle between his love for Kamala and devotion to his American wife Angela. There is also Celestine Marie, known as Celest, an orphan from a French monastery who links all the characters.
I enjoyed this book, it’s a true page-turner. Barbara Baer managed to portray beautifully all that is beautiful and ugly in the Indian society. I’m a huge fan of novels that deal with social criticism, and I loved how she tackled these social issues. I believe for a book to be good, it needs to explore at least some important themes, and this one certainly does so.
The Sad Destiny of the Devadasis
The main theme is the Devadasi caste. They were young women who, at a very young age, were forced to dedicate their lives to worshiping and serving the temple of a Hindu deity Siva. Besides being trained in singing and traditional dances, these girls also had to sleep with men from higher castes. They were marked as unpure and were social pariahs.
What I found interesting about this novel is that, unlike other novels examining similar cultural roles (e.g. Memoirs of a Geisha, The Virgin’s Tale), The Last Devadasi doesn’t follow in detail Kamala’s childhood, initiation to the Devadasis and her life in that period. It focuses on the consequences.
Kamala is no longer a Devadasi, but a famous dancer and a rising Bollywood star. However, while she can hide her past, she can’t put it behind her. Even though she is a beautiful and successful woman, her life as a Devadasi made her insecure, distrustful of men, and ashamed, which she tries to cover with her outspoken personality.
Most of the novel takes place in the 1970s when this tradition was outlawed. Because of this, some tend to romanticize the Devadasi caste as a deeply spiritual, noble tradition. Baer manages to prove them wrong, showing that the tradition was nothing but forcing young girls to prostitute themselves.
Social Inequality and Racism
The Devadasis are not the only characters who have to deal with prejudice. Baer also points out that there are still castes in India who are deprived of some basic human rights, namely the so-called Untouchables. Moreover, there is a lot of criticism of colonialism which is shown in Angela’s encounters with rich, British, highly-prejudiced ladies.
Celeste is an example how selective the mindset of this society is. Europeans in this book are very well respected. Celeste, however, although a well-educated, hard-working, poliglot Frenchwoman, is dark-skinned, and thus she will always be looked down upon and seen only as a servant.
What I didn’t like
While the novel is called The Last Devadasi, it is not so much about Kamala. The focus shifts a lot and I can’t put my finger on who is actually the main female character – Kamala, Celeste, or Angela.
Also, I never really felt for Kamala. Yes, her story is sad, but she wasn’t somebody that I rooted for. On the other hand, I found both Celeste and Angela more sympathetic and cared what would happen to them.
All in all, I think this book is worth reading. If you are a fan of historical fiction, critical views on cultural traditions, or just a fan of romance or India, I’m sure you will like this novel.