There couldn’t have been a more appropriate title for Sangeetha Sreenivasan’s tale of lesbian love, and the demons it unleashes—in the mind, and within that tenuous network of bloodlines called family. Acid is the euphoria of lovers in an embrace; it is the psychedelia of fragile relationships; Acid is the agony of separation, and the paradoxical ecstasy of unravelling, of wasting away, of turning into a shadow. That the bilingual author translated her own work from the 2016 Malayalam original, which won the Thoppil Ravi award in 2017, perhaps quells one’s curiosity (and occasional astonishment) about the jagged narrative arc of this novel, which swings back and forth in time, welds reality with dream sequences and hallucinatory trips, allows one to peek and pry into the lives of its characters as they share their bodies, their music, their food, provides a sudden authorial summary of events, and often does exactly as it pleases.
At the very outset, Acid attempts to beguile with the description of an erotically charged dream: ‘She lies naked and flat on her back in a lotus pool that surpasses the stillness of Monet’s beloved ponds. The water in its greenness brushes against her nipples. The woman in her greenness shoots a hurricane of madness upwards to the window that opens to the south of the winds.’
A languid opening, which disintegrates the moment the dream vanishes. Aadi, one of Kamala’s biological twins, has woken to the sound of Kamala fighting with her lover, Shaly. ‘Aadi heard Kamala scream across the room and the sound of something being knocked to the wooden floor. The room shook, and somewhere at the back of the house plaster came off the walls.’ This is typical of Kamala and Shaly, the female protagonists of Acid, whose intertwined lives alternate between savage lovemaking and fighting. They have met on a package tour to a temple town, during which Kamala delves into Hindu mythology to explain the overt sexuality of the stone sculptures on the temple walls, to young and gorgeous Shaly. They live together in a two-storied house in Bangalore. Kamala is an LSD junkie. Her twins from her marriage to her cousin Madhavan—Aadi and Shiva—live on the lower floor of the house. Boundaries are clearly established in this subversive household: ‘The women were free to come down whenever they wanted. But the boys were not allowed on the upper floor.’
This very singular, very renegade family unit sets one up for a narrative that is utterly original, and characters so real in their addictions, their obsessions, their quirks and foibles that they linger, like kisses, or like the vestiges of a dream. And one is sometimes rewarded with scenes that are tender compositions of the characters that inhabit them. Shiva is paralysed, and depends on Aadi to be taken care of. The circumstances that lead up to his disability are delineated with a rare attentiveness to ambient sights, sounds and smells. Shiva chases a red Frisbee outside the premises of his hostel: ‘He might not have heard, for he flew like a Frisbee himself. The red Frisbee was there, underneath a lonely bench near the lake, lying on the lawn. It was already dark outside. A single mynah sat watchful over the bench, it was time it roosted. Shiva grabbed the Frisbee with great enthusiasm and flung it high with all his strength. Scared, the mynah shot upwards.’
Acid vacillates between a compelling realism and hallucinatory derangement, the mundane details of drinking tea in dented steel glasses and LSD induced musings on life and death, ponds, forests and flowers. What interrupts, perhaps what destroys this rhythm is the profusion of metaphors, similes and anthropomorphic sentences. They proliferate, not like wild flowers but like fungi, obscuring the beauty of a clear moment with gaudy prose. For instance, the narrative preempts Shiva’s accident by stating: ‘Somewhere in the darkness, somewhere near the lake, death warmed itself by the fire, waiting with an expression colder than that of the treacherous water.’
When the family reaches Kamala’s ancestral home in Kerala, a little after her mother’s cremation, the narrative offers Kamala’s point-of-view with, ‘Death lingered under the tarpaulin awning of the funeral gathering and on the features of everything, animate, inanimate, blurring impressions.’
Death lingers, kisses rain down like leaves, blossoms whisper. Acid, in spite of a heroic bid at a story that is fissured yet cohesive, hallucinogenic yet lucid, remains tethered to the safe terrain of cliché. Casual references to Claude Monet, Zen, and the music of Vivaldi, Demis Roussos, Paul Mauriat, the poetry of Pablo Neruda are strewn across the book, in a self-conscious attempt at cosmopolitanism or literariness or both. When the narrative shifts to an ancient house in rural Kerala, one is inadvertently reminded of poet and author Kamala Das’s (1934-2009) Nalapat House, described with cold precision, in her autobiography My Story, first published in Malayalam as Ente Katha in 1973. The English version of the original was published in 1988. Here’s a glimpse of Nalapat House:
‘There was a bathhouse near the pond and a crocodile that came out in the afternoon after the servants had also finished their baths, to lie in the sun with its mouth open to trap the dragonflies.’
In Acid, one yearns for a sharp image of the old house in which Kamala’s mother has died, or at least the wry humour of a band of irritable city dwellers who have had to leave Bangalore to make this crumbling edifice their home. Instead, one views the house through Shaly’s incoherent point-of-view: ‘The night they arrived, she had been startled by the sudden, almost unexpected, flapping of wings and the abrupt flight of a flock of birds from the windows of her room, reminding her of some old English movies she had seen—was it Agnes of God or Birds?’
A deliberate culture coding has the effect of transforming characters into signposts of a milieu. In Acid, characters relegated to the periphery of the tumult that shrouds Kamala and Shaly appear like cardboard props. Particularly disappointing is Kuljeet Kaur, Madhavan’s lover. In a novel full of sentences that flower riotously like bougainvillea, Sreenivasan reserves her most banal ones for Kuljeet Kaur. In fact, one is first introduced to her with Kamala’s obvious disparagement: ‘How can I trust my children with Kuljeet Kaur, the woman who hates me? Kuljeet Kaur!’
Minor characters can be dangerously revelatory—they tell of a writer’s craft, knowledge, and sensitivity. The very name Kuljeet Kaur is a stereotype, and this character perhaps best represents the fault lines within Acid. The book attempts to make a grandiose statement about same-sex love and the shifting definitions of the word ‘family’. Through Kuljeet Kaur, a caricature at best, the veneer of sophistication that Acid professes peels off, to reveal the bare bones of a story that veers towards soap-operaesque melodrama. For these lines, which explain Kuljeet’s hatred for Kamala, are reductive enough to drag the multiple tragic histories of Acid into the mire of commonplace drivel: ‘If only Kamala had loved him, he would not have abandoned her and her children; Kuljeet, for her part, would have married someone good, someone from her own community, someone who grew a beard and wore a turban—the gift of the Guru, and become one half of Mr. and Mrs. Singh.’
Acid then, leaves one with an ache. Here are all the components of an evocative story—strong, beautiful female lovers, twin brothers seething with resentment, an ex- husband, the city of Bangalore, the forests of Aizawl, a house by a cremation ground in Kerala. But what gets in the way in the telling of it is alas—the writing of it.
Radhika Oberoi works in advertising and moonlights as a journalist. She is the author of Stillborn Season. She has a post-graduate degree in Creative Writing, Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.