Starcursed book review - A Love Story by Nandini Bajpai set in ancient times

Starcursed by Nandini Bajpai is a surprisingly wonderful read. 

Surprising because I wasn't expecting much from this tale of star-crossed lovers. But Bajpai's breezy writing also manages to do more than just tell a love story. She is able to create an entire world solely through her imagination and that's quite a feat – to get the reader invested in her characters and a story set in the twelfth century.

The Story

Leelavati is the daughter of famed astronomer Bhaskara Acharya of Ujjayani. But according to a reading of the planetary positions at her birth, her husband is doomed to die. Hence, her parents are reluctant to arrange her match. But since childhood, her heart is set on Rahul Nagarseth. As the story opens, there is news that he’s on his way back with his father. But the heart is set for a million mutinies when Rahul's engagement is fixed with Roopmati, the daughter of jewel merchant and moneylender Oswal Seth. How Leela and Rahul come to express their feelings for each other and defy customary barriers of caste and adverse planetary positions to come together, forms the heart of the story.

The story is peopled with a plethora of characters from Leela's parents and grandparents to her little brother Loksamudra, known as Loky; her close friend Brinda and her love Kanwar Ranveer Singh; the Nagarseth family; Leela's suitor Mahendra; and the royal families comprising King Vindhya Varman of Malwa and his son Prince Subhrata, who is also Rahul's friend. Besides these main characters, there is a phalanx of characters that speak to the politics of the time with the royal family of Anhilwara's Mulraj, his uncle Bhimdev Solanki and his widowed mother Queen Naikidevi, as well as those belonging to the fringes of society, like Bittan and her vegetable vendor mother, and the alcoholic astrologer. Each is etched well and does not come across as uni-dimensional. 

More importantly, unlike books, which are strangely unwilling to name peripheral characters, this is one book where everyone, and even the mare Rahul rides (Kalyanee), gets a name.

Why It Should Be Read

It has to be read for its sheer imaginative power. Hats off to Nandini Bajpai for coming up with such a mesmerising story just on the basis of a reference about the identity of Leelavati. Bajpai came across the name in a Persian translation by Faizi, a poet laureate of Akbar’s court. He had translated the book on astronomy Siddhanta Shiromani authored by Bhaskara whose first chapter is named Leelavati. This piqued her curiosity and she went on to create a novel set in those times.

Just like Leela, the female characters do not just form the backdrop, but have agency, with Queen Naikidevi going forth into battle; Padma the Sethani being adept at business, and even the minor characters like Bittan and Viru choosing to cheat the stars to get married to their respective loves.

There’s a poignant side vignette about Leela's young aunt and some time chaperone. 'Don’t ever marry too far away from your parents', she advises Leela, underlining the loneliness of a young girl married too early and already the mother of twin boys.

Unlike most love stories, Leela is also presented as someone whose parents are willing to grant her the opportunity to find her own match. So, although they have selected a suitable groom for their daughter, they organize a swayamvar for her to choose from a line-up of potential grooms. Leela is shown even then trying to get Rahul to present himself. Unlike traditional heroines, too, Leela is shown in all her shades, prejudiced about the Sethani, Rahul's step-mother and devious in the way she gets Rahul’s engagement with Roopmati nixed through the clever device of a bill of goods!

At the same time, the author does not shy away from depicting the deep caste divisions during the time (although it's a bit muted) and showing its subversion by Leela and Rahul. There is also a debate about taking to monkhood versus taking to arms between Leela's father and his parents and mention is made of Leela's mother's brother who took refuge in the Buddhist order. In this debate is revealed how the coming of new religious orders like Buddhism and Jainism eroded to some extent the rigid caste barriers by permitting anyone into the fold.  'Sweepers, farmers, weavers', as Aaji remarks dismissively, taking umbrage at having her son Bhaskar Achary seated with the Jain monks at a feast hosted by the Nagarseth. There’s also a nice little touch where Rahul corrects Leela's young aunt who assumes that his friend Rashid Al-Hamdani is from Turkey when he's an Afghan who owes allegiance to King Salah-al-din Ayyub, and not Muhammad of Ghor who is the enemy at the time the story opens.

There are lovely details, such as the childhood game of ‘keekli’; how the first showers bring foreigners and strangers out on the street in a mad dance; the use of water clocks; the clothing of those times when ghagra-cholis had just become a new fashion; the outbreak of the plague, which renders class and wealth of little consequence. It is reminiscent of our times dealing with Covid and it’s strange to read many of the same patterns of behaviour like social isolation, vaccination, and the use of flags to denote areas where the pox was rampant.

Information on the Book

Published by Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa publications, Starcursed is priced at INR 295. Get a copy at the local bookstore Kahani Tree or FunkyRainbow, or online.

Note on the Author

Nandini Bajpai who grew up in New Delhi and is based in Boston now writes for kids and teens. She is the author of Red Turban, White Horse: My Sister’s Hurricane Wedding, Sister of the Bollywood Bride, A Match Made in Mehendi, and Rishi and the Karmic Cat.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with Grandpa, Bringing Back GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.

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