United colours of the fair sex

Breathing in colour
Clare Jay,
Piatkus Books, an
imprint of Little Brown, 2009,
pp 280, Rs 295

It could have been a thesis submitted for a postgraduate degree in experimental psychology. Indeed the novel was written in part fulfillment for a Creative Writing PhD in the University of Leeds. The foundations are laid sufficiently strong by Clare to help us suspend our disbelief. A broken home, a child’s looking on at a telecast where a boy’s head gets blown away in the Vietnam war, sibling jealousy of a six year old (Ah, Conon Doyle’s The Sussex Vampire), a baby’s death by drowning in the bathtub and the pent-up frustrations of a teenager to get away from it all form the opening scenario.

All these components hold together the dreams, visions and a long-drawn out real-life treasure-hunt game to keep us focused on the story line. Only, here the hunt is set up by a daughter and the hunter is a distraught mother. When we do begin to wander in the spaces of Mia Salter’s synaesthesia, these foundations help us hold our balance. For a debut novel, Breathing in Colour is an extraordinarily well-wrought urn.

Twentyth century churned the depths of experimental psychology ever since William James asked the leading question:  “Does consciousness exist?” From then onwards we have had the behaviourists, the positivists and the parapsychologists in action. Now it is all about synaesthesia. Knowledge about consciousness keeps expanding though we seem to understand less and less of consciousness than before! Where is the coercive proof about these states of consciousness, asks the Doubting Thomas. I have it, says Clare Jay, by choosing the proof in a mother’s love for her lost daughter.

Alida Salter in London gets a phone call from India. Her daughter who had gone to India has been missing for eight days.  The last place Mia stayed was in Hotel Guru, Madurai. Alida phones to her estranged husband Ian, and takes the next flight to India. So what is special about it? A mother will naturally go in search of  a lost daughter!

That is where we sit back to marvel at Clare’s tightly spun story. Mia was born to an unwed teenager. Subsequently, Alida and Ian married and had another child Kizzy.
Alida’s attention was all towards the little one and circumstances were such that she even suspected the six-year-old Mia when Kizzy drowned in the bathtub. From now onwards it was almost a hate-relationship and things did not improve as Ian went away to live with Maggie. Alida herself had some men in her life, frustrating Mia who was already a special child because of synaesthesia. Some of her actions could not be understood by others and one blamed the other and everyone floundered in purgatories of their own. Then this news from India.

Ian finds the idea of  Alida going to India to search for the lost daughter just laughable: “…you’re the kind of woman who refuses to go camping because she’s worried about insects coming into the bloody tent. If you can’t even sleep in a tent, how do you think you’ll survive on your own in a place like that?”

Alida does survive, be it Madurai, Mamallapuram, Hampi, Varkala or Bangalore. Clare is absolutely authentic, and scores by not overpainting any picture in India.Including, the smells and colours that wrap up Mia and the readers in a haze. Her progression is punctuated by Mia’s retrospective diary. Slowly and surely the jig-saw puzzle gets its form. There are a few men in the novel but Breathing in Colour is essentially a woman’s story.

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