What's you name?Born in one Indian state, Kerala, and adopted by another, Karnataka, you cannot tell whether she comes from hill or plain, north or south, and her face comes soon comes to acquire a global look. Much like people, words, images and ideas float around not knowing where they come from till one fine day when you're an adult it suddenly hits you, and you draw in your breath and think: "Sss-aah! So that's what it was!" To Shanthi, all the "outsiders" in her town -- the mayor, the lady doctor, the borrow shop man, the Parsi priest -- Gujaratis, Italians, Anglo-Indians -- are all Malayalis, for as a child her world is divided simply into grownups and children.
Which is your land?
Shanthi grows up "white and bright" for the first twenty-one years of her life, seething against the constricting bonds of parental love. Her father, the maths teacher is not a cruel man; he just hates movies, comics -- "they spoil your English" -- visits to and from classmates -- "familiarity breeds contempt", and hurries Shanthi out of the Annual School Day celebrations after she has collected all the prizes and before the plays begin. Shanthi retaliates by answering just 45 marks worth questions in her maths paper -- as much as will get her through -- in her school-leaving exams, when she could well have got "centum". She cleverly escapes constricting Calicut for big bad Bangalore, to a room of her own and a job in a tabloid newspaper. Unsentimental and unromantic -- "Nostalgia. Never trust it, I tell you", Shanthi completely and rather cold-bloodedly disavows her past, for not only does she tear up her father's letters without reading them, even her taste buds turn traitor, preferring toast and marmalade, and the new-found holige and puliyogare to her native "naadan" food.
If Shanthi is self-confessedly "a docile and somewhat colourless personality", her friend Lilly has all the colour and the zest that escapes Shanthi. She wears "nylon panties and not the white knickerbockers that were the hallmark of every decent girl" and while Shanthi hunches to hide the swell of her hateful breasts, Lilly hitches up her bra straps higher and lives it up with the boys. All the raps on the knuckles she gets from the nuns in school cannot subdue her. Lilly's spirits are dented briefly when she marries the dull widower Thomachen but not for long as she escapes, with all her jewellery -- where else but to Bangalore to join Shanthi.
Bindu's "unbelonging" is more straightforward -- she is of illegitimate birth, but lucky in that she is practically adopted by the family that employs her mother as a servant, and taken to the US to be given an education; even the matter of who her father is is settled to her advantage but she does not truly know where she belongs till she meets Shanthi.
In Bangalore, which is C K Meena's canvas for the wide world, matters of belonging and not belonging are not as straightforward, so Shanthi discovers. She meets and becomes fast friends with "the Three Mosquitoes" -- Gautam, who asks her hesitantly, "If I told you something, would you still be my friend?", Devraj, who greets her with "May I present you with a baby?", 'baby' being tipplers' jargon for a quarter bottle, and Krishna, slowly discovering what it is that holds these three together. The title of the novel too comes from an attempt at distancing -- Shanthi and the Three Mosquitoes amuse themselves by translating menus at local restaurants into English, quite literally, so the humble uddina vada becomes the fancy black lentil doughnut. Love too Shanthi shuns, like the ultimate outsider, only to be entranced by the glossy cheekbones on a very Malayali face, and the matte finish of dark muscular arms.
On a visit to Feroze Manzil to do a story on high rise buildings for her newspaper, one of the residents tells her, quite casually, that there are only "our people in this building", and in the same house Shanthi is shaken out of her complacent bohemian self when she finds herself applying a Norman Tebbittian "cricket test" on coming across a poster of Imran Khan, the captain of the Pakistani cricket team, in the son's room. Soon, it is the turn of her hosts to transgress when they discover that Shanthi's short hair and trousers and shirt have been misleading -- she is not a Christian as they imagined her to be. Her hitherto garrulous hostess falls silent and anything that Shanthi says in her defence " that she is not religious, that she even eats beef " only makes them more disapproving. However much she protests, she is straightjacketed into belonging.
There are others too, like the Ultra Nationalists, who consider themselves the ultimate arbiters of belonging, who will decide who is a traitor and who is not. The Ultra Nationalists also spur the novel to its finale. In the course of their bomb attacks on cinema theatres, Lilly, unaccompanied, eating her heart out for the man who has left her, is killed; in the ensuing communal riots Bindu barely escapes with her sanity intact, but even as the city burns Shanthi finally comes home to where she belongs.
The one strength of Black Lentil Doughnuts, from which all its other strengths are drawn (and also if I must cavil, its weakness) is the precision and vividness of its imagery. With a few deft strokes, C K Meena is successful in pinning down her characters, in indicating the drift of a whole life. With Lilly, Meena manages to pull off what an experienced writer may baulk at. Lilly begins as a creation of Shanthi's mind "Lilly has stayed with me, as chronic as asthma, since the day I spawned her, or maybe even earlier " but soon acquires a life of her own, quite the counter-point to her creator. But like all creatures of the mind, she has to die, eventually. So Meena scripts in her death wish early : Lilly at age seven on a swing, longing to let go of the rope when it is at its highest, and proceeds to fell her in style. There is an almost child-like openness and honesty with which Meena deals with the sexuality of her characters, a subject not often dealt with by Indian writers (in English) or as well; we feel even the jaded Lilly's pain when she falls in love and eventually loses the nubile Kamal.
The only reservation I had with the style of the book is that it bristles with images -- rich, evocative, but still too many and massed too close together. The writing seems too self-referential, pre-empting things that are to follow or shades of character that stand to be revealed. One longs for a narrative sweep of uninterrupted story telling, for relief from the short, staccato "journalistic" style, but then again, this may just be prejudice on my part.
Book Description: Shanthi and her alter-ego Lilly escape the oppressive warmth of their small town to taste the freedom of an emerging metropolis. Shanthi is seduced by the anarchism of the Three Mosquitoes, while Lilly's seductions are on more predictable lines. But all the while they are being stalked by an insane mass hysteria that sees them as outsiders C K Meena takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the love and hate, gentleness and brutality that is metropolitan India.
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