Monthly Archives: June 2011

Book Review: The Cousins by Prema Raghunath

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Marriage, as an institution and an instrument of hegemony, can only delineate desire. It cannot expunge it. In a post-feminist world, and we cannot overestimate the role of feminism here, it is an institution confronted with either a complete collapse or a deliberate and measured dismantling and refashioning. To live, love, court and couple in such a time is often bewildering, but not so bewildering that the contrasting lack of agency of only a few decades or generations ago has vanished out of sight. The characters of Prema Raghunath’s The Cousins exist in a space of arranged marriages and filial duty, the norms and expectations of their early 20th century upper caste Tamil milieu determining the courses of their lives. They do not have agency as we now assume it. They do, of course, have desire and personal volition – and by extension, must endure consequences and repercussions both of their own making and because of the inextricability of questions of public morality, custodianship and duty from their own choices and the choices made on their behalves.

The book’s titular cousins, Goutami and Krishnanand, spend their entire lives as ships passing in the night. Goutami is the product of an unhappy childhood – she loses her mother as a toddler, loses her sister as a teenager and is raised as little more than a servant maid by her aunt. Krishnanand is the archetypal playboy – he deflowers his female cousins in the days before their weddings, is above reproach on account of his superior charm and the fact of his gender, and squanders opportunities at home and abroad in carefree sprees. She falls in love with him while still little more than a child, her older brother Achyutan (who loses himself in drink and mourning) discourages the match, and Goutami is married off to the dependable and conscientious Seshadri. Krishnanand also marries briefly, to a haughty woman who essentially puts him in his place and leaves him repentant in a number of ways.

Goutami and Krishnanand share only one kiss, that too in their youth, and remain consumed by longing well into old age. Their paths cross often, and sometimes improbably, such as in a distant Himalayan town where both Seshadri and Krishnanand are coincidentally posted. Goutami is unfaithful to her husband, a matter which both her own father and Seshadri himself handle with little emotion. “You were a bad girl,” says her father to her, many years after an affair, as though this is how a woman’s infidelity has ever been dealt with. Oddly enough, Raghunath’s curious and somewhat unrealistic handling of the nature of desire and its corollaries is the one thing that ultimately makes the book interesting. Unsatisfied by the way this novel explores love, commitment and sexuality, one is left pondering the question of articulation – how did people in less permissive eras express desire? The concept of sin intrinsically lends itself to binaries; how were liminal spaces negotiated? In what ways is our understanding of romance in generations past coloured by our own misperceptions?

The Cousins’ chief problem is in its structure: it shifts constantly between speakers when it could just as easily and probably far more successfully have been told in a single narrative voice.  One moment Goutami is speaking to her granddaughters, relating the story of her life. In the next, Achyutan reflects on how many people’s ashes in urns he has set into rivers. If the star-crossed love between the cousins is the fulcrum on which the novel pivots, this is certainly lost in the cacophony. Instead, all sympathy goes toward an unlikely hero: Seshadri. That he stays by his wife despite her straying is irrelevant, because loyalty is a far more complex subject than this novel chooses to grapple with. What makes him likable is that he chooses to educate his daughters, first defers the default option of marrying them off and then allows them to marry to their own liking, and even arranges at one point for Goutami to spend time living and working in England while he remains in India. He emerges as far more progressive in his thinking and actions than the self-involved and fairly insipid duo the novel is ostensibly about. In contrast, it’s difficult to feel much for Krishnanand and Goutami, who have no qualms about running roughshod over other people in general but lack the courage to find a way to be together.

It’s not clear what Raghunath attempts with this novel: to tell a love story, to present a portrait of a bygone era, or to explore the ambiguities of lived experience. In the first two regards it does not fare well. In the last, however, it does in some way inspire thoughts and questions. An otherwise completely mediocre work, The Cousins is salvaged, ironically, by the fact it does not satisfy, and in doing so prompts the reader to turn those questions elsewhere: to the self, to other people, and to better-written books.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Apradhini: Women Without Men by Shivani (trans. Ira Pande)

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In the alluringly subheaded Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of their societies: prisoners and mendicants, domestic helpers and viragos, those whose existences are rarely registered as anything other than pitiable ciphers or outright contradictions. Shivani, however, seeks them in more liminal spaces, quite successfully avoiding the tropes that usually jaundice narratives of subalternity. She seeks them, most of all, in the liminal space of conversation: of what one woman will say to another when no one else is around.

It’s necessary to mention upfront an issue that does the book a disservice, however. We understand, if only from a brief note somewhere on the back cover, that this collection of sixteen sketches is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. One surmises upon reading that the book’s final section, of three pieces, contains the short stories, if only because of a detectable nuance in tone. But no indication is given otherwise as to which category any given piece falls into. This is a glaring oversight, doing justice to neither the author who compiled or created these stories nor the women whose lives they are. To deny credit to the former for works of the imagination is less grave, however, than to deny the latter the basic dignity of being read as a person and not a character.

This begs the question of whether one must approach the reading of what is presented as fact and what is presented as fiction differently. The succinct answer is yes – good literature will illumine the world no matter which medium it appears in, but to pass off the imagined as the experienced is an act of questionable integrity. The decision of Shivani’s estate, translator (her daughter Ira Pande) or publisher to make no distinction between works of fiction and non-fiction is a pity, casting unnecessary confusion over a book of tremendous strength and sensitivity.

The women we meet in these pages, these eponymous women without men, would have suffered at the hands at a writer concerned with sensationalism or self-interest. They could very easily have been rendered one-dimensionally as superficial objects of pop or pulp, driven by their sexuality and selfishness. But Shivani etches them so delicately that even the most lurid of their stories is full of empathy and nuance. We meet several of them behind bars, most often for murders. A few, like alms-seeking travellers Alakh Mai and Rajula, live without address. “There is no jail on earth that can shackle a free spirit and no spirit so free that its feet cannot be bound in chains we cannot see,” writes the author, and this line underscores the spirit of the collection on the whole. Unsentimental yet compassionate and peppered with enjoyable, slightly humourous moments without becoming tasteless, Apradhini’s most victorious effect is that it assigns such importance to the vagaries of fate – how arbitrary it is, in the final reckoning, that one is only someone who reads about such lives, and not a person whose life such is.

And not, for instance, the deeply sensual Muggi, who left a trail of fourteen conned husbands behind her before falling in love with the fifteenth and who eats terracotta to assuage her sadness. Or Janaki, who helps her brother-in-law murder her husband as he sleeps in the same room with their children. Or Alakh Mai, a child-bride who pushed a buffalo, her husband and his mother over a ravine before turning to the spiritual life, the only option available to her. Or Deshpat, who enjoyed the power of being a gangster moll till the love of one piece of gold ruined her life. In these lightly-etched but strikingly powerful vignettes, we feel intimately connected to their lives, and appreciative of their agency – not, as would have been the case with a more emotionally manipulative author, feeling badly for or towards them.

There are, however, a few pieces that miss the mark. The first is “Ama”. a recollection of the author’s own mother; in this instance, the subject seems to cut too close to the bone and thus comes across as slightly too maudlin. But the more notable failure is that of the three pieces that consist of the book’s final section and are most likely to be fiction, two – “Shibi” and “Dhuan” – are both about high class courtesans who fall from grace. This line of storytelling carries far too many shades of regressive, parochial cautionary tales on female immorality – a big disappointment in an otherwise obviously feminist collection.

Thankfully, the book closes on a less judgmental and far happier note: “Tope”. Ironically, one of the book’s most notable figures is hardly a woman without men – the flamboyant and excitable Christina Victoria Thomas rabble-rouses right from “the historic time when she really spewed fire and brimstone” all the way into old age. Fiction or non-fiction, heroine or harridan, we could always do with more women like her.

An edited version appeared in today’s Hindustan Times.

The House and the Kitchen Table

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So V.S. Naipaul thinks no woman writer is his equal. Boring. Why waste column inches – let alone energy – on outrage? I take Naipaul’s statement about as seriously as one should take any statement by a cranky old egotist known for his bad moods, long sulks and antiquated bigotries – it might make for an awkward dinner party, but if you’re there at all, you can spend it plotting what to include when you deliver his eulogy. His former editor (and most recent object of his derision) Diana Athill has gone on record to say she used to remind herself in moments of strife, “at least you’re not married to him”. We, thankfully, don’t have to entertain the invidious Sir Vidia in person at all.

So there’s really nothing remotely rewarding about taking apart Naipaul’s arrogance. There is, however, one other thing that the eminent curmudgeon said about this matter that’s of some interest. Somewhere in his diatribe about sentimentality and “tosh” in writing by women (which you are no doubt already familiar with), Naipaul is also quoted as having said: “”And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Now that is an almost empathic statement. Too bad about the context.

In their own way, Naipaul’s words echo a different response to the question of women and fiction. When it was put to Virginia Woolf in 1929, Woolf went on to write the canonical essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which posited that financial autonomy as well as actual physical space are imperative to the writing process. She argued that it is necessary, in short, for a woman to be able to literally lock herself into her work and lock the world out in order to produce it at all.

Decades later, the African-American womanist Alice Walker challenged and expanded what she believed was Woolf’s privileged point of view: she wrote (in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) that before a woman could own a room with a key, she first had to own herself – a prerogative literally denied to slaves and others of disenfranchised backgrounds.

So when Naipaul speaks of a woman not being “a complete master”, he actually wanders into feminist vocabulary, an interesting if unwitting step in an otherwise unexcitingly misogynist contention. It is, in effect, a concession: the acknowledgment that one’s experience of the world is limited by gender, and that gender roles in turn continue to be asymmetrically demarcated. Naipaul is correct in saying that the perspectives of women writers are influenced by their lack of dominion in various spheres of life. He is inexorably wrong, however, to dismiss these perspectives as any less important than his own or those of any other male writer.

The most elementary rule of writing is that one must write what one knows about. Good writing, even fiction, comes from an empirical place. So if the narratives produced by women writers reflect, as Naipaul says, a “narrow view of the world”, then the more pertinent question is – do they reflect that world truly? Do they speak for it? Are they authentic?

So if we are to assume that most women, in some regard, live without autonomy, then we must also allow that those who write have done so in a variety of less than ideal compromises: in secret, under pseudonyms, at the kitchen table, between feeding times, in custody, against regimes domestic and otherwise, without intention or access to publish. They have done so, more often than not, not from the comfort of a private office, but in the liminal spaces and snatches of time afforded by lives that do not, generally, afford much space or time, or respect.

If their writing is coloured by the fact that they are mothers, wives, daughters, wage-earners, dependents, care-takers, then by that same token Naipaul’s is surely also coloured by the fact that he is a racist, masochist, elitist, sexist misanthrope. But the circumstances out of which these women – or anyone, regardless of gender, who is disadvantaged in any way – write out of do not diminish their work any more than Naipaul’s infamous abuses in his personal life and corrosive statements do his own literary output. To write in spite of possessing a “small” life is an act of agency. Naipaul, whose own father took to writing as a means of escaping poverty, should certainly know this.

The work of the writer is to bear witness – but this is not as grandiose a trope as it sounds. To bear witness to life is to bear witness to its kitchen tables, its bedrooms, its little heartbreaks, its disappointments, its pettiness, its fleeting fulfillments and – yes – its sentimentalities. If the fiction produced by women writers does all these things, then I would say they are doing something correct. A narrow but clear view of the world is far preferable to something sprawling, sweeping, but ultimately in denial of the world itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

Book Review: Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua

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There are books that blow one’s mind open. There are books that leave one shaken, altered, destabilized. Those books are easy to talk about, their effects easy to describe in superlatives. And then there are books that wander in without bells on, as quiet as the comfort that fills the heart while watching the day’s first or last light from one’s own window, alone but for the succor of a cup of tea. Perhaps that is the analogy that comes closest to expressing the peace that Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth brings. This profoundly intimate novel is one of the most beautiful books seen in Indian fiction in many years.

We are held for a time and then we are released imprinted, as though from within a womb – a testament to Barua’s impeccably crafted narrative voice, for this is exactly what the novel is about. Kaberi is a homemaker in Bangalore, pregnant with a longed-for baby about whom no one – not her estranged husband, not her parents in Guwahati, not her few friends in her adopted city, not her domestic help – knows, except for her gynecologist. Her second trimester has begun, and before long she will not be able to conceal her expectant state. Rebirth is her monologue to that child who begins as a secret and an uncertainty, then turns into the pivot on which she will renew her life itself.

Of all the psychic locales that writers over millennia have explored, there are none as complex as a woman’s interior landscape, a landscape so fascinating that long before feminism put pens into women’s own hands, male bards sought to emulate their voices. There is no dearth of the first-person female voice in the genre of the contemporary novel today, but Barua’s contains an unusual timelessness – it has a curious but highly successful lack of urbanity and modern neuroses, thus delivering the sense that, as with some of Kamala Markandaya’s work, it could be set anywhere within a span of decades. This is one of the book’s strengths: chiseling Kaberi’s experience down to her most private sphere, influenced solely by her own emotionality.

What emerges is delicate: we are not subjected, for example, to melodramatic outrage about her husband’s infidelity, or unmitigated grief about the deaths of loved ones, or even self-consciousness about Kaberi’s own promising work as a writer. It is only much later into the novel, when the pregnancy is no longer a secret and a salvaging of the marriage is being negotiated, that Kaberi begins to regard the unborn baby as an entity to whom stories must be told, and a sort of rhetorical distance emerges. Until that point, the baby is but an extension of her psyche, and her single source of solace. Over the course of her pregnancy, she acquires the strength to support both her child and the needs of her own evolution. Barua traces this journey with a fine sense of nuance.

Rebirth is a deeply compassionate novel, consoling the reader the way Kaberi’s baby consoles her for many months – gently, with tenderness, and with neither demand nor plea. The tranquility it offers lingers similarly: this is not a novel in which characters haunt, petitioning us to find absolution for their unexplained futures and unanswered questions. Instead, one is content to leave them where they leave us, carrying forward the perfection of the brief time we have spent with them. With extraordinary intimacy and understanding, Barua has found a way to echo gestation itself: holding the reader safely, but just long enough so that they reenter the world calmed, soothed, deeply moved.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu Literary Review.