Of feisty women

In the preface to her debut novel (longlisted for the 2007 Asian Man Literary Prize, while still an unpublished manuscript), poet and banker Anuradha Vijayakrishnan makes a startling statement. She refers to it as “my first born’s twin, named in the womb too, just as my daughter was.” She informs that this novel started as a short story and then grew along with her newborn, “shedding baby skin, growing characters, voices and thoughts.”
Well, the preface gives the reader an inkling of what to expect, the tone of the book. This is a dark and dream-like novel, involving a prosperous Malayali family that is home to passionate women and marginal men.

The protagonist is the different and difficult elder daughter, moley Janaki. Then there’s Leela, the younger daughter, the achiever; Amma, the perfect and pretty homemaker and less-than-perfect mother; Raj, the father, “uncertain but vaguely responsible”, watching from the wings as the three women take the spotlight, make things happen.

The father’s silent role is revealed by and by. Janaki’s voice is what we hear most of the time, the truth as she sees it. At other times, we get the perspectives of Leela and Amma. Ultimately though, it is the story of Janaki, the girl who was surprised that she managed to grow up at all in this winners’ home, “watered and fed three times daily”, scolded occasionally for her lapses, and then somehow readied for a “seeing” by a prospective groom, the pleasant enough Rohit — the man she rejects. Rohit manages an uncomfortable situation smartly — he turns to reality, Janaki’s flippant suggestion that he could marry the younger and smarter sister. So, along with achan (father Raj), Rohit stays on in the novel as a peripheral male character, involved enough in the tale’s trajectory.

The reader is occasionally presented with scenes from the past, childhood scenarios and misunderstandings that may have helped shape Janaki into the difficult daughter she is. There is another important female participant — Chitra Kunjamma, achan’s cousin, betrothed to him at birth, but married elsewhere and quickly widowed; she has been the third and silent participant in the Raj-Amma marriage, simultaneously enigmatic and friendly. It’s her home that provides refuge to a temporarily banished Janaki, post the girl-seeing anti-climax and embarrassment.

Janaki accepts the new circumstances with the equanimity and self-possession that has characterised her waltz through life, doing her own thing despite the continuous consternation she causes. She finds refuge and meaning in a new garden, makes friends with the maid, discovers secrets, learns to see anew old adult relationships... she acts, on instinct.

Janaki returns to the maternal fold, makes a revelation — and probably leaves some readers worried about minor matters, like ethics. The mother rationalises and wonders whether she was responsible for her angst-ridden daughter’s action. Janaki also gets to spend plenty of introspective time with her sister Leela and brother-in-law Rohit — the latter still intrigued by Janaki. Leela’s perfect life now seems less perfect, her successful career and marriage more insubstantial than understood before. Janaki has intense conversations, reassesses old feelings, and is occasionally haunted by ghosts, regrets.

But from here, a well-fleshed tale drifts to an inconclusive closure that has left this reviewer dissatisfied and puzzled. And, all the in-depth characterisation and poetic prose could not take away a final wooly feeling. And it’s a pity, since otherwise there is so much going for this rain-soaked tale about searing familial relationships. There’s plenty of lyrical evocative writing, local ethnic flavour, imagery involving Kathakali, gardens, snakes and dreams, as well as bits of humour — all stirred into a stormy soup.

The family’s small hidden, unplanned garden is also Janaki’s security blanket, “not much of a garden, more an amiable meeting of vagrant plant souls.” Describing a road trip: “Slopes come rushing at us, then disappear, cracking up with laughter... like sore-throated chaathans, those nasty little boy-terror-spirits that scared both Leela and me equally when we were small.” And the stubborn supposedly loser daughter talks about indulging her family, “back then”. That was when she “returned Leela’s precious lipstick with a black ribbon tied ominously around its neck.” Characters come alive, for instance, this description of Leela: “Smart as she was, she lacked the strength of rage...” At the funeral, Ammini the maid sat at her post “like crumpled cotton”. Though occasionally there is some unnecessary wordplay: “Bits of my mother’s perfectly formed vadas self-destruct into dust in my mouth.”

Ultimately, despite a cloudy resolution, the characters, mood, language and psychological underpinnings leave an impression. As a literary novel, the book scores.

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