Eternal, rustic lamp

A Silence of desire

Kamala Markandya
Penguin Books, 2009,
pp 179, Rs 250

Certain wonders never cease to enchant. Be it the Taj. Be it the Egyptian Pyramids. In literature, too, there are unmatchable gems that stand the test of time. Like Homer’s Odyssey. India also has (now, not talking about the Vedic classics, here) an array of quality writers’ works that refuse to stop fascinating you. The ever-effervescent Kamala Markandaya is one such writer.

First published in 1960, about a middle-class Indian family, Markandaya’s A Silence of Desire stages a seamless comeback. Why so? Because it is crafted in a deceptively gentle style in simple-yet-evocative language, much like its leitmotif, the tulasi tree in a homely courtyard, portraying the silent symbol of faith and family. And Penguin decides to publish it, like many of her earlier works, this year, too.

What makes Markandaya so special? For which you should reread the story, at least of the book in question. Sarojini is the dutiful wife of Dandekar the clerk and mother of two daughters and a son: 12-year-old Ramabai, 10-year-old Lakshmi and the youngest little son Chandru. Until one day.

“Three children, no debts, a steady job, a fair pile of savings that his wife regularly converted into gold... ” What more could Dandekar ask of Sarojini, his wife of 15 years, who tended to his neat and orderly needs and was good with the children? She met all his demands placidly and listened to his account of another day in office with the same patience and regularity. And he was always grateful to her for keeping her report of the day brief — ‘not bad’ was good enough.

All is quiet until the day he comes home from office to the deafening sounds of Chandru’s loud crying, the servant girl helpless and whining, and his two daughters squabbling. Sarojini is not home. Strange. She says she went to see her cousin Rajam.

Well, the last day of the month, when as usual, Dandekar goes shopping to buy little gifts for his family with the money he saves on bus fares by walking to and from the office... who should he bump into but Rajam herself — enquiring about Sarojini who she hasn’t seen for four months. Quite strange. Dandekar hardly hears the rest of the conversation and breathes an uneasy sigh of relief only when Sarojini tells him that was cousin Pankajam she saw. More unease when he opens the old tin trunk under the bed in search of an old book and sees the photograph of a strange man — a married woman did not have men friends who were not known to the husband, did she? The seed of doubt is sown and starts to show in his demeanour in the office also.

He starts coming back home at odd hours to find his wife not there, the servant dismissed and the children on their own. And one evening he finds his wife sitting cross-legged in the courtyard praying intensely by the tulasi, lamps lit and the man’s portrait garlanded. The dutiful Dandekar, obsessed, takes leave from office and shadows Sarojini. More lies follow.

The blurb on the back cover of the book does not prepare you for the deeper storm inside. This is no simple East-West or faith-versus-reason argument. We wish the author were alive to see her readers get all the meanings she has brought out so subtly and, yet, powerfully. A Silence of Desire is a gentle book spoken almost in silence, but it grips and keeps you thinking about it long after you are through with it.

Final touch: It would be too limiting to call this work the usual ‘Indian writing in English’. It is universal in its theme and relevance.

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