My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.
In Wayanad some years ago, I found myself outside a temple compound in the forest, its doors closed for the malefic afternoon hours. It may have been lovely to enter the temple, but what I had come for was just beside it. A pond, its surface caparisoned by moss. Trees leaned toward it, cascading silent strings of leaves. Its water was perfectly still.
I sat under a tree and immersed in the quietude for several minutes. Was the sadness palpable in the place native, or had I carried it with me? The name of the pond was “Sita’s Tears”, and legend says that this was where Sita had wept before she re-entered the earth. Among the many Ramayanas, in one that culminates in Wayanad, it was in this forest that she lived the latter part of her life. The earth had cupped her tears and kept them, and they in turn had maintained a façade of serenity. While beneath that surface, a tempest of a thousand years teems.
As I sat beside Sita’s Tears, I recalled a dream I’d had some months earlier from which I had woken with great sadness. In it, I had visited a Sita temple near Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka. This is where, in many tellings, Hanuman finds Sita, in the grove in which she tells him to take her jewels but not her. Lanka was destined to burn, for her beloved would only be suspicious to see her in the arms of another. Even if, as in Kamban’s verses, he lifts her not by limb or waist but by the earth beneath her body (for she herself, after all, is the earth). In Seetha Eliya, the earth is black, as if scorched by fire.
Some say she was born in Mithila, Nepal; others prefer the version in which she is a Lankan princess, daughter of Ravana, exiled upon water like Moses or Karna when a soothsayer reveals that she will be the cause of her father’s death.
I finally received an answer to a question I had posed sardonically: “I wonder when Sita Navami is?” It turns out that it is this Sunday, and is in fact observed annually on the 9th day after the new moon in the month of Baisakh – although clearly not with any major aplomb, anywhere. The only information I could find was painful. To celebrate Sita as an ideal wife is equivalent to celebrating her suffering. And to do so with words like ‘chastity’ and ‘sumangali’ are nothing but celebrations of the suppression and subjugation of women everywhere.
I had wanted to know if a Sita Navami existed because I had wondered if she had been forgotten; instead I found that she had only been misremembered.
But this I know to be true: we celebrate Sita most often when we don’t realise it. When we vocalise support for single mothers. When we stand up for those abandoned by their spouses. When we breathe quietly in nature and allow her alone be our witness.
I have sat beside the still water of Sita’s Tears. If it rippled at all, it was because of my own.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 12th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
One would think the novella would find more favour in these times of abbreviated attention spans. Less demanding than the novel and meatier than the short story, it is the Goldilocks “just right” of texts. Susan Visvanathan’s “Nelycinda”, at just under a hundred pages, is a stunning novella. Told in twenty short chapters, it makes superb use of the neglected form, with a perfect balance of generosity and restraint. It should have been published as a stand-alone book; instead, Nelycinda & Other Stories becomes just that: one superlative piece of writing in a volume made unnecessarily plump with extras.
The title story is set just 300 years after the birth of Christianity, in a time when the southwest of India was a collision, or a collusion, of Roman, African, Chera, Chinese and other influences. Visvanathan writes about Kerala before it was Kerala with remarkable skill, painting a picture that is as vivid with texture and humanity as it is shorn of pretentiousness. At the centre of the novella is Susa, the wife of a wealthy trader who is frequently, and then seemingly permanently, travelling. At once ambitious and intimate, “Nelycinda” is both historical fiction and the story of one woman’s choices, circumstances and agency.
Not all the remaining stories in this collection are fillers, but the two that immediately succeed “Nelycinda” particularly pale in comparison. In “An Incomplete Travel Diary”, the second longest in the book, a former abused maid and her rich, impotent husband travel to India to adopt a child. In “Shopping in Paris”, both father and son in a family of Martiniquais musicians are obligated to choose between staying at home or travelling for work or love. Neither story compels in language or in mood, nor are their characters well-etched. It’s not progressive to suggest that an author mine a single landscape repeatedly, yet there is such a marked difference when Visvanathan writes about Kerala that it’s difficult not to wonder about her limitations.
A few stories are unmemorable, as when Visvanathan turns her gaze to Malayalis in the Middle East in “Gulf Baby” and “Further Away From Paradise, Returning Home”, or “Allapuzha”, which begins and continues as a short factual essay before suddenly diverting into a fictional introduction. There’s a pointlessness and an absence of grace in their lines, as though the evidently gifted author herself was ambivalent about them.
Still, the book is not without rewards. A trio of linked stories – “Correspondences”, “Pepper Vines Trail My Hair” and “Sludge Without Sun – are catalysed by the beautiful centre piece, in which a woman prophesied to die young maintains only a delicate and bittersweet attachment to the world. The first story comes long before the second, so that we arrive at the connection with delight. The collection ends on a strong note – “Odd Morning”, in which a Malayali American theatre actress leaves a train mid-journey, discomfited by its male passengers, and stays for weeks in a remote village.
Visvanathan is a curiously underrated author, despite her prolific output (Nelycinda & Other Stories is her fifth book of fiction; she is also the author of seven non-fiction works). In the best of her work, there is a lyricism and suppleness in the writing, tethered by deep reflections on history, gender and religion, and a distinction of style that deserves a larger audience. This collection of disparate pieces suffers only from bad curation. This doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the title story or the few persuasive ones. The demoted novella could have had better company, or none at all, but it is still a gem – albeit among a less sparkling assembly.
An edited version appeared in DNA.
The Kerala editions of The New Indian Express carried this article about my work today.
Although The Girl in the Garden begins as a letter from a woman surreptitiously leaving her sleeping fiancée for her ancestral village in order to make peace with her family’s fractured past, even in its decidedly adult themes of morality, fidelity and secrecy it feels like a novel for a younger audience. This isn’t an indictment: Kamala Nair’s debut work contains the romance and magic of many much-loved children’s stories. Its obvious debt to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in particular, is complemented by its lush Indian backdrop, creating a charming tableau recognizable both in storyline and setting, yet bridging the varied contexts of the two.
Ten-year old Rakhee Singh, born and raised in Minnesota, accompanies her moody, beautiful mother Chitra to the latter’s childhood village in Malanad, Kerala. Chitra, already having spent time in an institution, has grown increasingly erratic since a series of mysterious letters began to arrive. Rakhee intercepts one; later, she sees her mother flushing her medication down the toilet. In the midst of escalating tensions in her marriage to an older, relatively sedate scientist, Chitra decides to return to India for the summer, taking Rakhee with her. The Girl in the Garden is told in Rakhee’s voice – she grows up to be the woman who, echoing her mother’s flight from years before, makes a similar journey to confront the past.
But that journey itself serves as little more than prologue and epilogue: the novel takes place almost entirely within the span of that fateful summer that Chitra and Rakhee spent at Ashoka, the house of the Varma family. Although it is ostensibly the adult Rakhee, writing to her partner, who retells the events of that period, the narrator’s voice contains no trace of hindsight, regret, confusion, irony or the many shades of adult complexity that have compelled her to return to India for the first time since childhood. In almost all ways, this book belongs to that child alone.
Given this, it is unclear why this book hasn’t been pitched overtly toward an adolescent readership, one to whom the subject matter will come as no shock, but whose understanding of the same must be handled delicately (and Nair certainly does so). Not only is this likely to be the audience that might most enjoy it, but in what may be the book’s singular drawback, it is just not as convincing as a work for fiction for adults.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable – an undemanding read, the novel zips by in a single sitting, simple yet satisfying. Yet its themes are impossibly heavy: illicit relationships, abuse of power, sociocultural oppression; its events disturbing, on the same scale as those of that other, very famous, book about a disintegrating family during another irrevocable Kerala summer. These themes and events are dealt with very light-handedly, in a manner which – depending on the reader’s tastes – is either refreshingly uncomplicated or unchallengingly facile.
The Girl in the Garden, then, is the perfect embodiment of a fairytale: a story that in actuality is filled with grimness and malevolence, yet strangely has an uplifting, dreamy effect. “There’s something not quite right about this place,” Rakhee’s cousin Krishna says of Ashoka – and it’s true. It’s the home of Chitra’s aging mother and siblings – the alcoholic Vijay, his wife and child, and the abstemious Sadhana, who raises her three daughters as a single mother. It’s a home full of sadness, undercut grandeur, and shame of both social and private variants. Most significantly of all, somewhere in the forest beyond the house lies one of the Varma family’s deepest secrets (though by no means the only one): a small house and a flourishing garden, tended to by a child-woman and her white peacock. It is a miniature paradise, and an entire life, kept under lock and key, encased by boundary walls. And one day, fueled by curiosity and fearless of warning, Rakhee climbs over.
For the young person who reads for pleasure and who has outgrown books written for children, but who has not yet been introduced to contemporary Indian novels in English, Nair’s would make the ideal transition tool. It takes the format of the diasporic generational saga, strips it of adult conflictedness and darkness, injects an element of mystery in a charmingly unpretentious way, and packages it all beautifully in a child’s voice. Where the adult reader may tire of its familiar themes and even its ultimately predictable plotline, for a young reader not yet jaded by the reams of literature of a similar nature, it is certain to be a wondrous, memorable experience.
An edited version appeared in this week’s The Sunday Guardian.
I will be giving a reading, followed by a Q+A session, at the valedictory function of Spitfire ’11, the National Institute of Technology-Calicut’s inter-collegiate literary festival. The event is open to the public.
Date: November 13, 2011
Venue: Auditorium, NIT-Calicut