Imagination that haunts

Imagination that haunts

MARIA’S ROOM
Shreekumar Varma
HarperCollins, 2010, pp 324,
Rs 299

They come as multi-talented painters of life, the Indian writers of the post-Salman Rushdie generation. Shreekumar Varma is one of them: poet, playwright, editor, teacher, short story writer for children and adults, and what else. Ah, a novelist too. A decade back, Lament of Mohini was a good find for the browser of recent arrivals. Now Maria’s Room. Is it going to be depressing as the blurb implies or will it be a Shreekumar dish, a mixture of humour and tragedy? 

Goa has been in the news recently for unsavoury items in the dailyspread.  The backcover of Maria’s Room is no comfort either, as it splashes a bushelful of affairs and tragedy, a treacherous past with perhaps a spine-tingler thrown in. Certainly not a novel for smiling gaily and whispering delectable anecdotes. Remember Bimal Roy’s classic? Dilip Kumar’s car getting stuck in a strange area on a rainy night and the driver suggesting a dilapidated house nearby for the night’s stay. Those curtains flapping around the hero as he recognises the portrait of Ugranarain from a dim past. The entire scenario of Madhumati came back to me as I read the opening of Maria’s Room: “It drained its edges into shimmering slabs that had probably been paddy fields until last week. Black branches, leaves and a few anonymous objects crossed the road, migrating hurriedly from one slab to the other.

The driver shook his head dispiritedly. We were still on the outskirts of Margao.  ‘Nahin chelega, saab,’ he mumbled, catching my eye in the rearview mirror.”

And so it is no surprise when a few pages later a girl’s ghost from the past disturbs the psyche of the protagonist. It is time then to settle for what Varma thinks is a detection set-up. But the strong hints get to be so loud that we are never surprised by anything that happens. Will there be a replay of Maria’s tragedy?

Obviously not, though the ending is no shower of rose petals and rice at the departing honeymoon car. All we have is the Estate in which the hero rides in the dark with rain pattering on it, leaving behind the girl, or is she a ghost? The broad hint again, “the damp, mouldy smell of the car, Uttam’s cigarette, not the perfume of lemon and grass and the slightest of spices.”

If it is not the tale that is going to monitor the excitement of a committed reader, what is it that is appealing in Maria’s Room? Varma is a scene-watcher alright and has a way of coming up often with sentences we like to caress. “People crowded the pool, splashing, raising fountains of sound.” “I stood staring, unable to stop being a bad host.”   “I sat on the bed like a modest celebrity.” The multipurpose bathroom the hero shares with Milton, or St Francis as he must have looked like when he was alive:

“... out in the open in his wild robes, the wind on his face and the green brushing his clothes, drinking from the well and offering comfort to his students. I couldn’t reconcile that image with what I saw here. Idols and relics kept reverence alive, but imagination did a far better job — it retained purity and filtered the unwanted. Lorna prayed on, eyes closed. She was at home here. I felt uneasy.”

Bewildering thoughts
There in a nutshell we have the hero’s problem. He is a nowhere man, uneasy with writing and panicky when not writing; nervous with sex but jumpy when yearning for it; anxious to write a mystery tale but apprehensive lest he make it grotesque; raspingly  rebellious yet obtusely demure. Since Varma sets up the background of a reclusive mother and a materialist father, we have no problem in accepting this character, this asthi-koodam (skeleton), this wanderer in the dark mazes of his own bewildering thoughts, this Raja Prasad who had a three day marriage in Chennai that haunts him in Goa.

Well, the asthi-koodam incident is typical of Varma’s brand of humour. It is a much needed ingredient since the novel tends to drag at times. The red skirt which was no doubt planned as a centrifugal symbol fails to take off. Marcel Deneuve, Dr Fritz, Napoleon and Mrs Pereira who is a Shreekumarian Madame Defarge: Maria’s Room has quite a crowd seen through Raja Prasad’s fevered surmises.

While speaking at a seminar recently, Varma said that “literature is a repository of reflections, and often a sharp reminder that the world needs to be looked at with fresh eyes.” I am not sure about  fresh insights but he has poured in plenty of reflections regarding the agony and elation of a writer in search of a blockbuster. Let us wish him well. 

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