Strongly etched

Strongly etched

 And that the MUC of India are apathetic to anything that does not directly affect their comfort. It is upon this premise that Kavery Nambisan predicates her deeply felt and strongly etched novel, and since fiction allows liberties that formal disciplines cannot take (for instance, it does not matter to a writer of fiction as it would to a statistician or an economist whether the percentage of Indians living below the poverty level is 30 percent or 40 percent), Nambisan dares in the direction of ‘what if?’ What if the poor were no longer supine but decided to snatch what they thought was rightfully theirs? How do the MUC deal with the poor whom they need to perform all their menial jobs but whose human needs they want to wish away and whose anger they can no longer diffuse?
On one side of this equation is Simon Jesukumar, ‘Simple Simon’ as the author tags him, a member of the MUC albeit a sensitive one, who has grown old under the shadow of his dominating if idealistic wife and late in life, as a widower who is fonder of his cat than his grown son and daughter, gets drawn into the life of the slum next to Vaibhav Apartments, where he lives. He gifts the slum school with a water cooler and thinks he has done his bit. But he is aware of the injustice, the menace that lurks across the high compound wall of Vaibhav; on his very first visit to the slum he asks his guide, a slum dweller, ‘Do you hate people like me?’

On the other side is Sitara, the slum which began as a marsh in which fish were plentiful. Unnoticed by the city in the beginning, the marsh became the dumping ground of industrial waste and municipal garbage, which gave it a fetid, mosquito-ridden firmness and which seemed the logical place for migrant workers to put up their gunny and palm-leaf huts. In time, as with every Indian city which exceeds its limits, a quick cost-benefit calculation reveals that a slum like Sitara is a boil that needs to be lanced; its noxious proximity can no longer be tolerated.

Nambisan delineates the workings of a slum with credibility and populates Sitara with a multitude of characters —families like Chellan’s and Kittan’s which struggle to straddle their need for respectability with the demeaning material condition of their lives; Swamy, the teacher who loves his children but comes to school with shreds of meat in his beard because his other job is that of a butcher; Prince, the doctor without a medical degree (where else could he practice?); Baqua, the fixer with a conscience; and Dayaratna, the ‘Merciful Diamond’ who, as the name suggests, is the don, the arbiter of the fate of the slum. Most poignant of the stories here is that of the children Velu, Sentha and Thatkan; Thatkan for whom heaven is a yellow sunflower and who dreams of a hero’s death after the prime minister has pinned a medal on his uniform.

Nambisan’s prose has an urgent muscularity to suit its purpose; here is Simon’s first person account of his father: “I felt the pull and tension of a fragile cord that bound me to Father. His hot cardamom breath, the animal vigour of his movements, the smell of male separateness and power were virtues with which I wanted to identify.” Or the description of a woman’s hair  “fashioned into a low-hung bun of convoluted whorls, (which) resembles dung waiting to descend from the backside of a cow.”

As Nambisan grooms her raft of characters in Sitara and proceeds with Simon’s life and his growing involvement with the slum next door, one senses the struggle between her acute social consciousness and her awareness of her responsibility to the artifice of fiction. It shows in the way Simon is torn between his own easy going, even weak nature and that of his wife Harini whom he loves because she is spartan, conscientious and completely sure of herself, so much so that she cobbles together her own brand of socialism in a book that she intends to publish. After her (unexpected) death it is this book that Simon loses and which he must make good, it would appear, by living out the ideals it preached.

It is another matter that Simon Jesukumar, after a disquieting experience at the hands of Baqua, discovers the inch of steel in his spine and stands up against the other residents of Vaibhav for Sitara, and that eventually the political machinations of the Indian system ensure that Sitara is flattened, but we are left with the experience of the American girl who is not so lucky — the blonde, pink-fleshed, caring innocent who sets out to ‘help’ Sitara but whose friendly overtures drive the ‘slumdogs’ mad. 

The Story that must not be told
Kavery Nambisan
Penguin, 2010, 272 pp,

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