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The Human Stain: Review of A Girl and A River

N Kalyan Raman

A Girl and a River by Usha KR, Penguin Books India, 2007

“The past is not dead. It is not even past yet.”

William Faulkner

At a post-screening discussion many years ago, a famous New Wave filmmaker from India was asked: “Why do you – and others of your ilk – feel compelled to make films based on narratives from outside our milieu? Why does it have to be Shakespeare, Dostioevski, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Federico Garcia Lorca lending their imaginations to Indian lives? Don’t we have narratives of our own here that you might choose?” The filmmaker replied, somewhat lamely, that these writers dealt with universal themes and in that way, their narratives belonged to us, too. Even allowing that this tendency was natural in mid-town Mumbai – so close to the sea and facing west! – why would that patrician figure from a late edition of the Bengal Renaissance, Satyajit Ray, choose Ibsen’s plays for the final films of his career to depict duplicity and corruption in the political system?

Is it that the our society, including its numerous regional constituents – so newly and chaotically modernized, so contrarian in its historic impulses to its constitution as a political democracy, so taken with its own bottomless talent for corruption, and so heedlessly globalized in recent years – must resort to the “universality” of foreign art to arrive at its own particularities and resolutions? Is it that we are not yet equal to the task of imagining and illuminating our own lives – our past, our struggles and visions for our future? This may or may not be true with respect to contemporary literatures in Indian languages. For, although they are beset with the same problems and limitations of history, they do not necessarily have such easy access to the “universality” of world literature. Still inadequate both in quantity and breadth of coverage, literatures in Indian languages are nevertheless contributing narratives of contemporary relevance towards building a modern literary culture for our society.

However, Indian Writing in English, for much discussed and perhaps tiresome reasons, has seen its primary role as being part of what Susan Sontag has called “literature as a system of international production and exchange.” With a few exceptions over the years, it has tended to situate itself on the “unpleasant middle ground” that seemingly spans cultures and languages but lacks both at its essential core. When it does not travel beyond our shores, it is confined to our cities, where middle class destinies and perspectives are forged ex nihilo, as it were, in newly burgeoning, and apparently history-proof, socio-economic and political contexts.

The exceptions at their best – “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth, “In Custody” by Anita Desai and “The Scent of Pepper” by Kaveri Nambisan come to mind, along with a host of others – serve to tell us of people, situations and mores long gone and of how we came to be who we are today—they serve to nurture in us an essential limb of self-awareness. ‘A Girl and A River’, KR Usha’s third novel, is the latest in the series of such exceptions.

There are two intertwined narrative strands in ‘A Girl and a River.’ The first covers events of the period 1933-1942 in a small town in the princely state of Mysore. The ‘Girl’ of the novel’s title is Kaveri, daughter of Mylaraiah, an up-and-coming lawyer and loyal subject of the British Empire and Rukmini, who is susceptible to the first intimations of modernity in this provincial backwater and to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for freedom from British rule. Others in the family include: Setu, Kaveri’s younger brother, who is fiercely loyal to his father’s expectations of him, and Bhagirathamma, Rukmini’s mother and specimen of submissive, long-suffering womanhood in our society of that time. Centred on the fortunes of this family, the author weaves a detailed and nuanced portrait of life, events and people in that period, with characters ranging from a follower of Gandhi with an eye on the main political chance to an uncompromising idealist schoolmaster who risks a great deal to participate in the freedom movement to a British woman doctor who ran away from the soft life in Calcutta or Bombay to cycle through villages for treating her patients; and a host of others.

There are two layers in this narrative thread. The first relates to events of the larger world, mostly pertaining to the various phases and events of India’s freedom struggle during that period and the way in which the various characters engage with the unfolding events of history. There are fascinating accounts of how average Indians came to identify with Mahatma Gandhi’s call for freedom, willing to risk their whole lives for that cause; how certain elites sat on the proverbial fence, loyal to those who wielded power and yet apprehensive of the mass movement building against them; how adherents of the militant faction under Subhash Chandra Bose’s leadership perceived Gandhi’s non-violence even as they went down the path of extremism. The second layer relates to the “politics of the family”, to borrow a Laingian phrase, a staple of Indian life replete with mindless authoritarianism, cruelty and neglect, betrayal and injustice. In the author’s deft and nuanced portrayal we read the story of how Kaveri, the spirited girl named after a majestic river of the land, was betrayed to suit the expediencies of her family – her love thwarted by a father who wished to play safe with the authorities; married into a cruel family for the sake of his career; her distress unrelieved by the ineffectual compassion of her weak-willed brother.

The author’s depiction of small town life in Mysore State of the nineteen-thirties is exceptionally vivid, the limits and preoccupations of various classes of people – men and women; their hopes and fears; and the structures and dynamics of power within the family as well as in the larger world are skillfully etched.

The second narrative thread is the account of Kaveri’s young niece, trying to unravel the mystery of her institutionalized aunt through the chance discovery of a love note. The niece, a graduate student in distant Chicago, has her own ‘baggage’ – an unhappy childhood presided over by an uncommunicative father and a silent, oppressed mother. She intuits from the shadowy events of her childhood that her parents are seemingly in the grip of a shameful family secret. In order to make sense of her own sense of disconnection with her origins, the “dull discord” of her childhood home, the young woman investigates a note addressed to Kaveri by a suitor and unearths what became of Kaveri and why.

The device of using a chance discovery – a letter, diary or an ancient servant who simply cannot stop talking – to delve into the lives of people several generations into one’s past is well worn—and perhaps unavoidable in its banality. Who is afraid of – one might say – William Faulkner, or Ruth Prawer Jhabvala? Still, KR Usha’s choice of this device is a happy one, for it gives us a rare contemporary glimpse into the lives of those who preceded Midnight’s Children. The men, with minds totally unequal to their position and responsiblitiy, invariably see ambition as advancement through privilege and do not hesitate casually to inflict tragedy in the lives of others for their own convenience. Given the narrow options of that time and the imperative of seeking glory in a given world, they become stilted and monstrously selfish. The women are adept at reading the grammar of authority to which they much submit, finding simple but draconian ways to deal with life’s disasters—and breaking when all is taken away from them, as happens to Kaveri in and through her marriage.

It is the rare person who is not marked by what Philip Roth calls “the human stain”, the residual effects of folly and vice – individual and collective – that might often precede one’s own beginning by several generations. What might be the point of the girl’s quest, then? It could be a real-world closure with living beings; where that is not possible, it could only be knowledge and understanding of past events and people who are somehow linked to the source of her pain. As they say: tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.

Kaveri’s niece is wise at the end, when she walks away from the last living link to her aunt’s awry life and destiny. When you have lived through things….you cannot sum them up, for then you would be reducing your life to nothing and there would be no hope. She concludes, perhaps rightly, that she cannot – will not - think that “it is all a matter of air space and road lengths, of airports and bus terminals, of distances in the sky and kilometers on land.” She will carry …”my lost schoolboy of a father, my ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand mother, even this raddled woman across the table, and of course, their taint of madness.” She will accept her share of the human stain, as must we all—to keep our peace and sanity.

In her third novel - following 'Sojourn (1998)' and 'The Chosen (2003)' - KR Usha emerges as a gifted storyteller whose sense of historical detail and landscape is as acute as her grasp of interpersonal tremors. The prose is elegant in construction and fluent in its stride, and the narrative is never less than engaging. Pitch-perfect in every nuance and detail, right down to the quaintly imitative language of the men who used terms like ‘bounder' and “blackguard' – blaggar’! – hers is a skilled and finely empathetic reconstruction of a lost world and time. And the author does quite as well the more contemporary angst-ridden inquiry into the past by Kaveri’s niece, this nameless child from a dysfunctional family.

‘A Girl and a River’ is more than a pleasurable read: through its choice of theme and narrative, it stretches the literary possibilities of this ‘Indian’ language in the right direction. It is heartening to think that we might – like peoples everywhere - stumble upon universality through particular narratives of our own troubled past—and present.

Review published in Biblio November-December 2007, p. 6.


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