Prema Nandakumar, September 20, 2015, DHNS 0:03 IST
THE ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS Manjula Padmanabhan Hachette 2015, pp 348, Rs 550
Manjula Padmanabhan’s latest novel recreated a childhood experience for me. Alice in Wonderland was a gift with plenty of illustrations. Remaining absorbed in the opening paragraphs of the novel as Alice falls down steadily, I thought it was me who was falling, but like Alice, I was not at all afraid. There was this crocodile in the Nile, with golden scales and Alice’s eyes grow bigger and bigger:
“How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spread his claws, And welcome little fishes in With gently smiling jaws!”
One can grin and grin and be a killer. Having experimented with a womanless world in Escape, Manjula has now written a woman-centric novel. Dostoevsky wrote huge, louring novels. When he was dictating them, his secretary used to be afraid of his body language. Manjula is actually a sweet-looking lady with a gentle smile that puts you at ease. And yet her novels can slip a chill knife into your heart. She is obviously serious as with her direct opening:
“The quickest way across the Poisoned Sea was aboard the Cut-Throat Express. Warriors and assassins, hunters and unattached transies, all travelled on the submarine ferry free of charge, no questions asked. For their own safety, passengers were locked into narrow cages with open drains beneath their feet.”
The nasty world expands with the sentences that follow. Before I had read the first page, I knew. I was Alice no more. The real culprit behind today’s novels like Lethal Spice, The Girl with all the Gifts and the book under review could be the PC. With the newspapers all set to give only sensational reports, you begin to think which gets transformed into imagination as you drive the car on a long journey. Stop it somewhere for a cup of tea! Take out the laptop. Quick, hurry before your brain loses its fever! The fingers dance, the manuscript automatically grows bulkier whenever you come back to the sweet little machine. No time these days to look back in tranquility.
One cannot but admire Manjula who, like the plants in Rappaccini’s garden, gets luridity blossom page after page. A transgender is to be the protagonist. Nay more. Youngest is also a person with an imbedded audio-chip repeatedly purring to him: “sell-the-girl, find-the-Island, in-the-name-of-all-true-men, do-your-duty.” A thinly camouflaged contemporary situation indeed, with plausible, alternate scenarios imbedded.
If this book were prescribed for graduate class, the person in charge of setting the question paper will find the task dead easy (blame the novelist for the reviewer’s diction!). How did the Red Sea become the Poison Sea? What is the Peace Gorge? What is the WWU? What is Trauma? Write 300 words on Memrase. What are the ornaments worn by Youngest? Deadening the whorls of sensitivity is a natural result when terrorism masters science and technology. What I find interesting is Manjula’s adroit injection of eroticism in the guise of describing the inhumanity that has been poured into the modern man. But, is all this necessary? Is it for a rising sales chart? What happened to that crisp novelist of Escape who had a point to make?
Why do we read Orwell’s 1984 again and again? It is a frightening dystopia but creative too. It makes us think. We were not allowed to let our attention wander from the theme. Sheer cleverness of manipulating language is aplenty in Manjula’s wordssmithery, which distracts us as we “gaze at the ovoid cases, with their tiny sleeping occupants variously turning, covering their faces or yawning in their pre-natal cocoons.” We move through the first part like the tumbrils going towards the guillotine and enter the Island. Youngest has come to find his niece Meiji who had been put here out of reach from her own land now overrun by savages who mutilate all women. This Island is worse, controlled by people who cannot bear to hear words like mothers, sisters. Nudity is power too! “Just as we are influenced, and sometimes diminished, by the layers of clothing we customarily hide behind, we are altered by the act of baring our bodies.”
The hide-and-seek to get Meiji out of this Island takes us through further adventures in this Tortureland. So Youngest is Meiji’s father or uncle? From the frying pan is it going to be a leap into blazing fire as the two get away with inside help? Well, the powers-that-be might have brutalised women continuously, but my English has certainly got knocks thanks to the pidgin wriggling throughout the novel. I is worried, we is going wrong writing my review. So I is close The Island of Lost Girls.