Edited Excerpts from an interview
Why and how did you think in terms of writing this book and that on a rather sensitive topic?
I had just finished a big academic project and was wondering what my next step would be. I considered another academic book, but the process of academic writing suddenly seemed repetitive. While I am very grateful for all that I have learned as a scholar, I realized that part of my trade is to stand outside the tradition and attempt to look in. It is very stand-off-ish — like spending one’s life studying dance, but never quite trying to dance oneself. So instead of launching myself into yet another study, I decided to do things differently and attempt to participate in the tradition by writing the tradition (rather than writing about it). I wanted to feel the characters and become them. Not just analyze what others have imagined for me.
There is an immense pain in this story of Buddha’s wife. What were your own personal reactions whilst researching and then writing this book?
The pain is indeed immense. I felt her pain and sometimes felt as though I was getting lost in it. I had a very difficult time relating to the Buddha for a while as a result. I could not understand his behavior, his selfishness. But with time, that passed. I began to understand not just her pain, but the pain that is life’s complexity. The pain of the story does not belong exclusively to her. Everyone suffered — the kingdom, the king, the horse Kanthaka, the chariot driver, the ministers. His decision to leave home broke everyone’s heart. And because of that, I had to imagine that it also broke his. It was the only way I could come to terms with the story. I could not relate to a Buddha who walked away without a second glance. I had to imagine his pain, imagine the torture he must have experienced as he negotiated the call he felt himself pulled to follow. He had the best possible life, with the most loving companion. It had to have been painful for him to leave, as much as it was painful for her to be left behind.
Comment on the irony that looms large : Buddha not just left his wife at a rather crucial juncture but even took away his 7-year-old son with him. How would you describe this pain inflicted on his wife?
The fact that the Buddha returned seven or eight years later only to take his son with him (and away from her) is perhaps the most difficult part of the story. I struggled with that scene more than any other, because from her perspective, it was devastating. I was therefore forced to try to understand it from his perspective and it was not easy. But I think I made my peace with that point of the hagiography. I interpreted it as a kind of Buddhist upanayana, with Rahula being offered his sacred education from his father, who is also now his guru. In this way, I think the Buddha’s decision to take his son makes sense. And, Yasodhara has to learn to let go. It is perhaps akin to our having to let our children leave home to go to college. Granted, that happens at a much later age, but I feel like it is a similar experience.
You could have written this story as non-fiction but you opted to write it as novel. Why?
I wanted to try to become the story and not stand outside it anymore. I have written quite a bit as a scholar. It was time to try something else.