Killing softly

Lead review

Killing softly
Multi-award-winning Malayalam writer K R Meera has been published in translation yet again. As the author admits in an interview, her novels ‘deal with painful love.’ Well, as a longish extract from an earlier novella (The Gospel of Yudas) reveals, this new book’s heroine-narrator, Tulsi, seems cast in the same perverse mould. She experiences it all — unwise love, ecstasy, revelations, realisation, self-flagellation, and a desire for vengeance.

We meet Tulsi, a shaven-headed Meera Mai/Meera Sadhu, at Vrindavan (near Mathura), where other cast-off, broken-hearted or widowed Meeras have congregated through the years, living out the rest of their years, singing songs in praise of their divine lover, Lord Krishna. For 12 years, Tulsi has led the life of an ascetic, tiffin box and walking stick in hand, hobbling around on calloused feet, clad in an old cotton sari, head covered, sweeping temples and Maighar spaces, washing clothes for older, enfeebled ladies, singing bhajans with devotion/anger... what is her story?

Early on, one understands that Tulsi was a bright young student at IIT, Chennai, and soon enough, back home in Trivandrum, agreeable for marriage, thus satisfying a dying mother. The groom is Vinay, a sensible though unromantic IIT mate. But temptation lurks in the form of a mutual friend, the charming, handsome journalist Madhav, hanging around, helping Tulsi’s respectable police official father with wedding arrangements and exhorting Tulsi simultaneously to go away with him, for love. Tulsi resists initially, well aware of the 27 women in his past. But she is also flattered and enamoured. The two elope, move to Delhi, enjoy marriage and passionate love. Tulsi does feel guilt and shame, but is also secure in the overflowing adoration of a man she considers to be a reformed rake.

Expectedly, reality sets in. More women, from the past and the present, arrive, lay claim, leave — while Tulsi diminished and pitied, accepts that her love is toxic, yet inevitable, rather like the mythical Meera with her mystic love. Tulsi willingly accepts Madhav’s explanations: ‘He always stopped my questions with his kisses.’ She erupts, questions, subsides, then lets her feelings simmer, as the cauldron of overflowing love sours slowly, but surely; meets Vinay unexpectedly, accepts his sympathy and genuine concern, reflects on what her life could have been.

Two young children soon make their appearance in this unhappy family; the mother soldiers on, tearfully rebuilds bridges with her own father, finds excuses for the errant husband... till it all gets too much and Tulsi discovers a bitter way out of the mess... one of the legends about baby Krishna providing the inspiration. It’s a shocking and moving episode in this trainwreck of a marriage.

Meanwhile, the story has been moving back and forth in time. Early on in the tale, 12 years into Tulsi’s Vrindavan years, Madhav appears — chastened, punished by the gods, one side of his body affected by stroke. And yet, Tulsi refuses to meet him, at least initially. She continues to sing her bhajans, serves the lord with all her pent-up fury, helps the older dying Meeras of Vrindavan, even meets a shocked and saddened Vinay, who urges her to forgive Madhav (now waiting patiently to meet her, while resting in a Vrindavan hospital). Ultimately, the unhappy pair get their deliverance. And thus ends this doomed love story; but there is more to it than the theme of love, betrayal and redemption.

Author K R Meera confesses to being a feminist, among other things. This is obvious, but her eminent literary strengths can be sensed too. Her minimalistic style is disconcertingly effective. The language seeks to strike and stun. Snakes, corpse eating ants, monkeys that fight with humans for food — all make frequent appearances, disturbing the reader with occasionally horrific visual wordplay. The snake imagery appears in the oddest of situations. Whilst getting shaved before moving on to Vrindavan, Tulsi woefully comments on her snipped locks: ‘Like dead snakes long glittering streams of hair had fallen to the ground.’

Ants are present as word images and actual representations, eerily dividing the sections. Chapter one is represented by one ant, chapter seven by a swarm. The story is awash in milk imagery right from the first line: ‘Love is like milk. With the passage of time, it sours, splits and becomes poison.’

Madhav, bearing one of the many names of Krishna, is not really a villain. He admits to Tulsi about the 27 women — “I offered them my love as alms.” Much later, he talks of men being genetically different from women  in this respect. Vrindavan comes across as a melancholy place — ‘gullies reeking of manure and urine’ — as well as a resigned state of mind — ‘the sound of broken hearts.’

K R Meera’s vengeful love story works as a cautionary tale. The Poison of Love

 
K R Meera
Penguin
2017, pp 101
Rs. 299

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