A writer to be watched

The Dollmakers’ Island certainly falls into this category. Its author, Anuradha Kumar, won acclaim by winning the Commonwealth Short Story-writing Competition in 2004 and establishing her identity as a writer of fiction for young adults. Kumar brings a sense of magic into this fantastic story for adults. The narrative neither follows a linear path nor adult logic, as people live on for 100 years or more, and British viceroys and lovers like Leela and Shyam flit in and out of the pages of history, according to the whims and fancies of the author.  But this is not to undermine the efforts of Kumar who uses the history of British rule in India to convey many-layered messages, both political and personal, as the story progresses. Touted as “Alice-like” on the blurb, the allegorical approach also bears shades of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

The story starts in the year 1947 with Lord Mountbatten fulminating over the inefficiencies of his predecessors “who knew nothing of how to run an empire. Or even divide it.” The Dollmakers’ Island bang in the middle of the river precludes “a neat, cut and dried division,” and Mountbatten decides to pass the headache to the civil servant, Radcliffe. A reference to the line that has to be drawn quickly with “Hindus here, Muslims there” clearly indicates the partition and, in understated irony, reflects the casual and callous approach to such an important task.  The island that forms the backbone of the story might well match the Sundarbans in its scenic descriptions but the pointer is undoubtedly to Kashmir “with a zigzag broken line” drawn by five homesick men “that left the island in a state of indecision, belonging to no country in particular.” One can surely read between the lines as to the identity of the two claimants, the Headman and the Mouldi with “centuries of animosity and rivalry that divided and defined all that they stood for”.

Kumar creates an aura of mystery about the doll-makers who, as a collective identity, seemingly represent the voice of the displaced which will not be suppressed, even as the author playfully details their acts of subversion like making a boat or a ladder disappear! Some of the mysteries do not get resolved even at the end, and it might be best to adopt a willing suspension of disbelief in this adult fairytale.

Kumar’s use of subtle humour to poke fun at the establishment is original and clever like when ‘dollmakers’ is substituted by the word, ‘smugglers’ in government records, to keep the coastguards always on alert! The reference to Gandhiji’s new pair of spectacles that needs refitting and delays his meeting with Mounbatten, is another piece of brilliance even as these spectacles keep surfacing throughout the book as the most prized possession of the Headman “enshrined in a specially-built glass case.” Could this be a reference to how the country holds up Gandhi as a show-case figure?

Whilst writing tongue-in-cheek, Kumar employs a literary writing style. Innuendos like ‘drawing the line’ and ‘losing and finding a voice,’ convey a lot as do observations like the government allowing celebrations, for “as long as people celebrated, they had no time to conspire, plot and plan!”

The narrative style may be esoteric, but if people can revisit the film Inception to understand its many layers of interpretation, this book is equally worth a re-read.  Anuradha Kumar who has bagged an award again in the 2010 Commonwealth Short Story-Writing Competition in the Science, Technology and Society category, is undoubtedly a writer to be watched.

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