Categories
Review

Sylvia: A Genre-Bending Book

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/ .

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Review

The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Secret Diary of Kasturba

Author: Neelima Dalmia Adhar

Publisher: Tranquebar, Westland Books

The Secret Diary of Kasturba by Neelima Dalmia Adhar was an interesting experience as it traverses known ground, albeit from a feminine perspective. The book lays no claim to authenticity or historical veracity since Kasturba was barely literate, obdurate in the face of her husband’s efforts to educate her. Adhar’s retelling of the personal life of the Gandhis is obviously inseparable from Mohandas Karamchand’s huge public persona which acquired almost mythic status during his own lifetime, as he became the “father of the nation”. That the public role came at a certain cost is what this fictionalized memoir/ autobiography makes clear. The fight against imperialism also took its toll and some aspects of this fictionalized biographical account might be seen as a sort of collateral damage.

Married off at a young age when both were thirteen, she describes the sexual passion between the two which cemented their conjugality. At the same time, his early experience of lust and unbridled passion fills Gandhi with guilt and remorse and his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, comes out strongly against the practice of child marriage, as he feels that it stunts the growth and potential of children trapped in the practice.

The other reason for his guilt is the fact that his ailing father was on his deathbed when Mohandas was overtaken by desire. That sense of guilt plagues him later, since he leaves his father’s room knowing well that the father’s chances of survival were slim. Soon after, he receives the news of his father’s death. Later in life, he took a vow of celibacy, but his decision of celibacy was taken unilaterally without consulting Kasturba, who felt resentful about being excluded from something that concerned them both. While Gandhi’s behaviour towards his wife, his tendency to dominate and control, were within the expected parameters of conjugality in late 19th century, they would stand out as oppressive by today’s standards.

Two episodes stand out in this context, both providing ample anecdotal evidence of Gandhi’s high-handedness and tendency to dictate terms to his wife. One is his injunction to clean out the chamber-pots of guests in the house in South Africa. When she refuses to do so, he is ready to throw her out of the house. On another occasion, when they are about to leave South Africa, Kasturba is given gifts of jewelry as a goodwill gesture. Gandhi forbids her to keep any of it and she is forced to relinquish all of it against her will. Her resentment is not because she is greedy but is based on the instincts of a middle-class homemaker who has, in the past, been a mute witness to her own jewelry being sold off, to fund Mohandas’s journey to England to study law. At every step, Kasturba, who comes from a relatively affluent background, has had her desires thwarted. Strong-willed and decisive in many things, with definite opinions of her own, Kasturba is curbed and controlled, her will broken by her overbearing husband.

 A similar pattern follows as far as his children’s lives and education are concerned. The book also shows Gandhi’s attempt to control and shape the lives of his children and his growing rift with his eldest son, which ensues as a result. His ideas of self-sacrifice and austerity do not always sit well with his sons, who view his refusal of a formal education to them as a disprivilege and a denial of opportunity. Ironically, he helps his nephews and other associates, but his immediate family is always put through impossible tests. Not only is the bar raised for them, but they are also made to forego all legitimate desires and aspirations, for example their desire for proper schooling. While there could be an element of exaggeration in Adhar’s book, some of these facts are on record. Adhar quotes a letter from Gandhi to his friend:

“I don’t know what evil resides in me,” he wrote to a friend, “I have a streak of cruelty in me that compels people to attempt the impossible in order to please me.”

The eminent historian K.M. Pannikker once wrote that the Indian national movement was India’s version or an equivalent of the suffragette movement in the West, since it served to grant women equal rights to citizenship of the country. My caveat is that these rights were only in the domain of the political, that too construed in a limited way. While Gandhi called women to join the national movement that he was in the forefront (and practically the face) of, right from 1918 to 1948, he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He was definitely not seeking to challenge the entrenched structures of Hindu society, but seeking to marshal women’s energies to bring about a sea-change in the minds and hearts of men and political system. His attitude to the Dalit-Bahujans was similarly status quoist. His nomenclature for them-“Harijans” or children of God was refused by them; instead they chose to foreground their own oppression by calling themselves Dalits.

There is no denying that Gandhi strode into the national movement like a messiah. He also gave the world a moral substitute for war. Yet his subsuming of all other aspects of his wife’s and children’s identities and aspirations to serve the cause of the nation seems excessive and impossibly demanding. As the blurb phrases it: “He is the Mahatma, a man the world venerates as a prophet of peace. But for Kastur, the child bride who married the boy next door, Mohandas was a sexually-driven, self-righteous, and overbearing husband. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was sworn to poverty, celibacy and the cause for India’s freedom; Kastur spent sixty-two years of her life, juggling the roles of a devoted wife, a satyagrahi and sacrificing mother, who was eclipsed because of a man who almost became God for India’s multitude.”

Ready to sacrifice his family at the altar of the nation’s freedom, Gandhi’s demands as a husband along with his intolerance and harshness as a father, threaten at times to exceed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Such are the paradoxes that constitute history or is glossed over in its official versions. For the longest time, feminist historiography has sought to redress the imbalanced and skewed nature of official history. This book could be seen as an attempt to fill the blanks and gaps in a narrative which tells us about one of the most revered and reviled figures in South Asia.

Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s book is interesting and engaging. Some embellishments and degree of artistic freedom are permissible and in line with historical fiction and fictionalized history. On the whole, the book conforms to well known facts of Gandhi’s life, basing itself on already existing documentation of it.

The Secret Diary performs an important function as biographical/historical fiction. Experiences like the time in South African are detailed in Gandhi’s autobiography but this fictionalized account fleshes it out, adding effect, conflict and detailing tensions of a kind we perhaps know well, both in his public life and between an authoritarian and self-righteous husband/father and his wife and growing children. It captures the everyday, in a layered and nuanced way, helping us to unravel and capture a sense of the various strands that are woven together to weave the fabric of the daily life of Mohandas Gandhi (before he became the Mahatma) and his family. The ‘truth’ that autobiographies, biographical and historical fiction express in never one-sided or singular or a monolith but is often many-sided, plural and multi-faceted. Such a work lends a chiaroscuro effect, where we see the life of the great man sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, adding up to a complex whole.

For a colossus of a man, who was committed to righteousness and treading the path of truth, he did not seem to have acknowledged or come to terms with the fact that his truth might have clashed against the truth of other life-journeys. The search for truth is a fraught task, a journey up a slippery slope, provisional and contingent and comes perhaps at a cost.  

.    

  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.       

    

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL