Lingering pathos

Lingering pathos

Lead Review

Lingering pathos

Born-Free: Challenging conventionsDelightful, is one of the words I would use to describe Shani Mootoo’s book, Valmiki’s Daughter. Refreshingly different, the most engaging factor of the book is the fact that it is set in Trinidad, and brings to the reader a view of Trinidadian society from the eyes of an Indian Family. The story begins with a glimpse of the life a wealthy doctor, Valmiki, and his struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the life that he has chosen to lead. The story of his life and the homosexual angle, has been masterfully portrayed, without the tiredness of the theme that normally accompanies it in family dramas of this sort.

Valmiki and his conflict seem real and believable, particularly because it has been set in the social trappings of the wealthy Indian community of Trinidad. His family, and specifically his wife, Devika, have to deal with the repercussions of his liaisons, and in her tacit acceptance of the situation, the reader will see shades of the stereotyped Indian wife being portrayed. Interestingly, a parallel has been drawn with Valmiki’s extremely unsuitable partner Saul, ‘unsuitable’ at least in Devika’s eyes. The book is peppered with mirroring of this sort, which may lead to a slight sense of disorientation, but the execution is flawless, ensuring that the reader will continue to turn the pages.

The bulk of the story however, revolves around Valmiki’s daughter, Viveka, an exuberant and unconventional girl, who is being pulled in various directions by her obligations towards race, class and gender. To empathise fully, the reader may have to suspend disbelief a little, yet her personal struggle is very  compelling. Young and heedless, in addition to the more ‘normal’ pressures of academics, romance and career, she is steadily drawn to Anick, the wife of her neighbour and childhood friend Nayan. Confused and thrilled at the same time, the story follows her, as she gets tangled in an emotional web that no one can extricate her from. The author takes us through her story, from the point of view of her family and friends, all whom feel increasingly worried, and yet, are helpless in the face of her determination to follow her heart.

Anick and her husband, Nayan, while not the main characters, have been beautifully drawn, and one of the most interesting portions of the book is their back story. The contrasting cultures of communities in France, Canada and Trinidad make for a focal point, without which the story might have meandered a little. Religion has also been lightly touched upon, through the narration of Anick and Nayan’s life with Nayan’s parents. This portion of the story will probably be familiar and evocative for Indian readers, and yet, this piece also has an interesting twist, in the form of Anick’s growing interest in Viveka.

Nayan meanwhile, has his own issues to deal with, which do not detract from the main theme, but only enhances it.

The book works because of its setting, its passion and simmering richness, which is only enhanced by the theme of cacao and chocolate, which has been interlaced very effectively with the story. The story builds up to a point where almost all characters have to make life changing decisions. It is at this point, that the mastery of the author comes into play, for she does not make the characters behave as they would have otherwise.

Their decisions may be startling to the readers, yet will seem logical and at the same time, will evoke a sense of pathos. The hurt, pain, and betrayal have been dealt with in a particularly poignant manner, bringing the book to a full and satisfying conclusion.

Valmiki’s Daughter
Shani Mootoo
Penguin, 2010,
pp 395, Rs 299