Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends
Author: Maithreyi Karnoor
Publisher: Tranquebar, 2021
Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia is a genre-bending book which appreciates the immensity of life while treading insouciantly.
Maithreyi Karnoor has won the Kuvempu Bhasha Bharti Prize for translation from Kannada to English. She was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and twice for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her essays, poetry, translations and reviews have been published in most mainstream and literary journals in India. She is currently putting together her poetry collection Skinny Dipping in Tiger Country, and collaborating with Rhys Hughes on Rainbow Territory. Sylvia is her debut novel.
We live life linearly. Growing, ageing and experiencing, we pass through events which stop us by to assert the primacy of time. Still, too often, we tend to dwell much upon the emotions we happen to go through – focusing hugely on our own desires and despairs. So much so that we lose sight of the only event which is bound to be certain – death. We overlook the fact that our lives, though lived in a linear manner, are also tangentially connected to lives of others, to all those people we come across. And taken together, the web that it creates, affirms our nothingness in the immensity of this design. Wouldn’t it be then wise to live the life in the constant knowledge of it. And not to take our own emotions too seriously, to make the journey bit easier for us.
Maithreyi Karnoor’s experimental novel appears to be an exploration of this idea. She gives us a character, Sylvia, and then proceeds to create a tapestry of life which includes warps of lives of the people she either meets or stumbles by, where her own life runs as an underlying nap, at times palpable while at others, invisible.
The novel is divided into two parts. Part I tells us the story of Bhaubaab, Sylvia’s uncle whom she happens to meet accidently, and of Lakshmi, Bhaubaab’s neighbour in a sleepy Goan village. Part II consists of nine distinct stories, telling the tales of its characters who may or may not be acquainted with Sylvia. At times, one wonders whether it is the same Sylvia in each story but the author doesn’t make it apparent. She weaves these stories with a confident hand, like a weaver who knows the design instinctively and doesn’t have to necessarily abide by the set patterns of construct.
Spanning sixty pages, Bhaubaab is also the longest story in the book. Cajetan Pereira or Bhaubaab returns and settles down in a village in native Goa from Africa where his forefathers had migrated. Karnoor’s research into the practices of living in both the places comes through her deft narrative. She touches upon the notions of familial conflict, ambitiousness of impressionable youngsters, smugness of educated elite and homosexuality as she intertwines the three characters of Bhaubaab, Lakshmi and Sylvia in the first part.
In Bhagirati, Karnoor probes mental illness of a character who dies by suicide. In Venison, she looks at the superstitious beliefs of people of a village where a young couple, Shaila and Sujeeth, make a home far away from conventional city life. In Blue Barrel, Karnoor tells us the story of Reshma, from an underprivileged background, who has to steal water even to bathe. Eighteen Spoons, presents a snippet of Sylvia’s life as a well-established writer through the lens of another character with whom she exchanges messages. The title draws its name from a poem included in the narrative which exemplifies Karnoor’s craft as a poet.
The story A Cat named Insomnia seems to render a closure to the stories of characters from previous stories in the sense that it suggests an ending whereas the other stories give the impression of seeping into each other. We meet Bhaubaab from Part I again in The Afterlife of Trees and RIP but not Lakshmi. The last story, RIP of Part II, also appears to suggest a closure as we witness Sylvia getting ready to go back to her home after what looks like some years of travelling.
All rest and peace is for the living
Know peace while you can
What if what lies beyond is more of the same thing
Get some sleep tonight
Appearing at the beginning of last story, these lines are a remarkable expression of the underlying idea of the genre-bending book – that of appreciating life for its vastness, of accepting, to borrow from the author, that love, loss, success, disappointments, shouldn’t be taken as seriously as we do. That if all these are taken in our stride perhaps they would hurt less. That we must know peace and cling to it. The pen which so assertively forges to interpret and portray this imperative view towards life is a pen worth watching for.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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