The book appears at first glance to be undecided about its genre or raison d’être: is it a novel or an essay? Does it wish to tell a story or discuss/debate women’s issues? Being an award-winning book notwithstanding, this disconnect stays with the reader throughout the book. As one attempts to read the story, one is constantly distracted by the meta-fictional sub-text that runs across the bottom of the pages. This, to my mind, takes away from the impact of the story itself—this marrying together of a fictional enterprise and a critical treatise on the status of women. Another problem is that these comments are pretty much disjointed and do not flow coherently in a seamless account, nor are they always a commentary on what is being said in the fiction. So why have them there?
Cast in the mould of the popular Vikramditya-Vetala tale, the sub-text meanders across many situations and discourses, often hopping from the mythic to the polemic with no apparent logic, bringing in Princess Diana, her lover Hewitt, Yayati, the indentured labour from India sent to distant lands, Mughal kings, menopause, celebration customs of indigenous peoples, the psychoanalysis of dreams and statements by Arutchelvi, Padma Swaminathan etc., on morality—all thrown together with happy abandon.
The book describes the psychological landscape of a woman entangled in an extramarital affair. The book ends without any apparent resolution and it is left to the reader to interpret the endless baths that the lady indulges in at the end. There is a lot of philosophizing and dialogue that meanders across the book but actually seems to lead nowhere or reach any kind of an outcome.
As regards the story itself, one wonders why the man and woman in the extra-marital affair bother to take the trouble in the first place. There is no sense of rapture or fulfillment, and even moments of stolen joy are rare. They are angry, say hurtful words to each other all the time. The book paints a bleak picture of women’s existence and seems to generalize their condition as exploited, bitter and miserable which would surely not be the case with all women in reality. Does the author wish to suggest that even if a woman wishes to escape the tedium and melancholy of a bad marriage into the arms of a (married) lover, she is doomed to stay miserable?
Saro and Kumar have an extra-marital relationship but at no point is there the feeling or the admission that their spouse’s cruelty or indifference has driven them into each others’ arms. Nor is there any sense of guilt or regret. There are hints that Saro’s husband is involved with someone else too but that does not get fleshed out in the narrative. Other snippets that are offered like gossipy chitchat indulged in by various characters harp on the same themes—infidelity, betrayal, the fickleness of human nature and relationships. There are no happy stories here. While the facade of marital relationships appears smooth with no discord fracturing the surface and the children seem to grow up normally within that space, the schism yet runs deep and with apparently no scope for reconciliation. Therefore, what stays with the reader at the end is a sense of the futility of existence.
A word about the translation: This must have been a difficult book to translate with all its dialogues and philosophical asides. However, there are times when the translation is too literal and the sentences are staccato-like in English as a result. What would have sounded like a flowing conversation in Tamil sounds stilted in English as the sentence structures and rhythms of Tamil have been adhered to (too) faithfully.
One cannot help wishing that there had been more substance to the narrative and if, not a neatly tied up conclusion, certainly a deeper sense of meaning. But then, it is in our nature to look for meaning everywhere, perhaps. We do strive to ask ourselves what life means, what our purpose of existence … But then life just is.
Malati Mathur is Professor of English at Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.