With an opening reminiscent of the famous scene in Wuthering Heights where a ghost puts its icy hand through the window to the accompaniment of the howl of a hard-blowing winter wind, Brinda Charry’s novel grips you from line one: ‘…The mulberry branches scrape against the glass of the windowpane. Let me in…’
I go on reading, and right away get fascinated with it. I am heavily biased in favour of the locale of the opening scene, and the magical language with which the novelist has captured it for the reader. That sedate, colonial enclave in Bangalore—similar to the one around Campbell Road described in the novel—which has been my personal haunt off and on for the last 35 years, comes alive so vividly in a language that breathes in and out like a living being. With this kind of a charming introduction, I launch myself into the novel.
Delineating the different characters at the very beginning, using short sections, is an effective narrative technique. Shanti, her absent husband Vasu who has left home fifteen years ago, her maid Rani, Vasu’s mother Jamuna, the neighbour Marie, her daughter Kathy, Kathy’s father Joe, Shanti’s children Priya and Vivek, come alive in word pictures. Kathy is shown as taking a fresh look at the newly returned Vivek who has been known to her from the beginning of his life, being three years her junior and also of his sister Priya, her best friend—thus the novel grows through character sketches and minimal action.
The narrative is done in the voices of the different female characters in the novel, like Kathy, Shanti, Jamuna, Rani, Priya, Marie, the mad girl Railway Tracks, The Queen of Dreams—Sapna. The male characters do not appear well-formed, and are devoid of an inner life of their own in the narrative, having no ‘voice’.
But when Brinda Charry chooses to employ so many voices, one would expect her to use each voice differently to suit different characters. But that is not the case. Kathy, Priya, Rani and even Railway Tracks use the same kind of language in their first person singular accounts, as narrative voices! Only Joe and Marie Richardson stand out for their use of ‘dinglish’.
Jamuna—Vivek and Priya’s grandmother and Vasu’s mother—is an elegant old lady who is compassionate and mysterious at the same time, who is believed to have occult powers and some kind of spiritual attainment. She prepares a set of charms and the like and hands them over to Marie, anticipating something bad that may happen. Marie is thrown into confusion. Jamuna seems to sense everything that is happening around her. Marie goes away with the charms. But her scruples and misgivings begin right away. How could she, a devout Catholic, dillydally with the devil and his paraphernalia, by way of lighting the magical lamp that Jamuna gave? Shanti, whose husband left her, seeking higher spiritual attainments, is mentally afflicted and withdrawn, surviving on timely medication, which her son Vivek (who has sacrificed his dream of securing a Ph.D. and settling down in the United States for the sake of looking after his mother) ensures through Rani, the little smart maid. Priya, Shanti’s daughter and Kathy’s friend, is a dentist who is living with her husband, away from her family, although, she gives up family life and returns home in between. Vivek enters the scene, and the neighourly family-sharing spirit of Joe one day finds him persuading Kathy to accompany Vivek for a movie. And thus begins their pairing. Or, was it Jamuna’s charms that worked? The compassionate grandmother in her esoteric wisdom would have wished the gentle Vivek to have the level-headed and positive Kathy as his life-companion, and worked some magic in Kathy’s house through the things she sent through Marie! Marie, Joe’s wife and Kathy’s mother, struggles to keep her identity as a chattakkari. She feels outraged even now that she is referred to as a ‘slut’ by policemen and others, just because she wears a skirt and blouse, or because she dances with the male members of the community on occasion, following their tradition. But she is stoic enough to suppress any such indignation that may come to the notice of her heart-patient husband Joe who is on the look-out for grievances of this sort, to react with gusto. She has to also hide it from Kathy who would scold her for not trying to understand the changing world and make adjustments. In Joe’s, Marie’s and Kathy’s world, the uncertainty and the insecurity of the situation in which Christians are called upon to define their role in society manifest in different ways—Joe, with his defective heart, is bent on joining a band of vociferous protesters; Marie is gnawed by anxiety as to the effect all this will have on the health of her husband and their over-all safety; Kathy is disgusted with the over-simplification of the whole thing, and at the same time, feels that things are not right at all. The consistently-sari-wearing, dark-skinned Kathy insists on her Indian-ness, whereas the older generation does not really know where they want to go—maybe to America where their son is, or to England, Australia, or wherever. Her anxiety seems to be to hold on to her inter-community relationship with Vivek, as securely as possible. Her instincts as a woman seem to urge her to throw all else. The younger generation does not care much for the ‘ding’ culture or the orthodoxy of the brahmins. What is emerging is the ideal culture-mix, so it seems, as the author wants to project it. Priya is Shanti’s daughter, Vivek’s sister, Kathy’s bosom friend. A dentist, she has been married away. Ram, her husband, is too insensitive for her to cope with, and later in the novel, she comes away, to stay at home. For her, the company of Kathy and her profes-sion is just fine, and she is happy overseeing the domestic scene, taking care of her mother. Rani is not your quintessential maid. She is sharply intelligent in a limited way. She has no conscience when it comes to playing up to her employers, or to her husband who has married her young, at the age of fifteen. Now 22, she is confident and aggressive, thanks to her good looks and sharp wits, and brooks no nonsense, nor takes things lying down. She looks down upon lesser beings in the world of maids and menials, and is cruelly sarcastic about their asinine fate for never recognizing their rights. Why can’t they carry themselves smartly, instead of grovelling, she wonders. The narrative gets serious with the alienation/belonging binary that Anglo-Indians and Christians at large are faced with in this country in the aftermath of the upsurge of ultra-nationalism, and is dealt with as unfolding through Kathy’s viewpoint, as reflections against the reactions of her father, to the news of nuns getting raped and the properties of the convent looted and vandalized somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. There is an element of grimness in the air, with Joe getting worked up and Marie reflecting her husband’s concern. But Kathy recognizes the strange objectivity the younger generation has come to acquire over the whole thing, in the context of the reactions of her colleagues and students in the college where she teaches. However, the reader is spared the dismal tone here with the rapidly growing relationship between Kathy and Vivek charging up the situation. The question of identity of the Anglo-Indian is raised in a subtle manner with the sleight of hand often found in great masters. Abruptly after a poetic paragraph describing the first sexual union of Kathy and Vivek—Anglo-Indian Catholic and Brahmin—there is a brief section that deals with the exchanges between Kathy and a young man who has come for a survey: ‘Kathy Richardson’ I say in response to the nervous young man at the gate who is doing a survey on newspaper reading habits. ‘Mother tongue, ma’am?’ he says in his convent-school accented English. There follows a pert description of the organ, tongue, in her mind—demonstrating the revulsion and repugnance she feels, upon being asked such a question—after which Kathy answers: ‘English.’ He looks doubtful, and then enlightenment dawns: ‘You are Anglo-Indian, ma’am? Like Roger Binny, the cricketer? I am told that he lives somewhere in this area?’ Eye for detail, taking in life at all levels, for example, people living in bungalows, and those living in hovels having been evicted from the spaces that made the bungalows possible, marks this novelist as different, at least for now. Though the story unfolds in such a substantial, real-worldly fashion, soon the narrative takes a series of twists and turns, which leave you wondering whether they were necessary at all. Vasu, believed to be long lost to the world, comes back into the somewhat laid-back lives of the ordinary folks in the sleepy Bangalore neighbourhood. Almost together with him, a circus, the Globe Circus, also enters the narrative; so does the enigmatic Mr. Anand. Vijay, a good-looking policeman, seduces the maid Rani working in the Vasu household, who is always on the look-out for excitement away from her dullard of a husband, Palani, a brick-yard labourer. What really happens is that Anand and Vasu, who surface almost at the same time, are being put under surveillance by Vijay, through Rani. It seems the demented Vasu and the coxcomb Anand are thickly into some secret together, involved in some money-laundering for funding the fundamentalists who went on the church-burning, nun-raping spree! Here the plot begins to go around, like a circus act—too many twists and turns for the reader to keep track of. Anand gets into the circus. He is apparently the horse-rider Pratap’s friend, or lover, because he is ‘that way.’ However, he throws away ‘that’ life, as he cozies up with Aida, the darling foster-daughter of Sapna, the Queen of Dreams, who is actually a hijra. Anand and Aida came together as Aida graces the circus stage with a peacock dance, in which Heera, Prince of Diamonds, Jamuna’s pet peacock, is making a guest appearance. But there is a contestant to Anand’s claim on Aida—Adam, a magician from the circus. Soon we have Vijay disappearing and the police hauling up Palani, Rani’s husband, who drunkenly declares that he has bumped him off. But from the mad-girl Railway Track’s (just think of the name!!!) voice we find that it is not he, but the goon Raja who has committed the act. Now we have Adam and Aida doing the vanishing act with Sapna’s blessings and Anand going bonkers. Vijay’s body is at last discovered and Palani’s innocence vindicated. The circus tent catches fire, and the dandy Heera, Jamuna’s peacock, dies in it. Vasu disappears once again, creating panic for some time, and is soon found. But Anand has left for good, though there is a suspicion that he is the one who set fire to the circus tent. Rani does not want to return to Palani, and disappears. Priya decides to go back to her husband, Ram. Vasu dies. And Shanti is a changed person, released from her depression, as it were, right from the moment of her husband’s death, which she callously watches, without trying to get him medical help. The blossoming of Vivek’s and Kathy’s relationship—what we anticipated from the beginning and all through the novel—appears to happen only at the end, when Vivek is finally back from Frankfurt where he had gone on business, and is removed from his solicitousness about his father following Vasu’s death, and is also free from his fascination for the mysterious character, Anand, who disappears. Vivek can afford to define himself now as one of the ‘Anglo-Indian Iyengars!’ The structure that is built on a fine foundation, soon begins to follow some strange patterns in its development. I do not know what to make of the narrative, nor its purpose. I remain happy and excited about the beginning, about the mesmeric quality of the language, about the unusual observations. A.J. Thomas, a writer and translator, is the assistant editor of Indian Liberature, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.