After suffering through many South Asian novels about women and oppression, I had sworn off any more such novels. I relented only because I had recently read Desai's In Custody, and I knew she was an exceptional writer with rare sensitivity and perspective. I was not disappointed.
The novel starts out slowly with a detailed description of Nanda Kaul's movements on one afternoon. Nanda Kaul, a great grandmother, has renounced her entire world, and has come to spend her remaining days in the peace of the Kasauli mountains. She is disenchanted with everything and wants nothing to do with any of the people in her life. Even a daily visit from the postman is an unwanted intrusion.
A letter arrives from her daughter Asha, informing of her granddaughter Raka's arrival in Kasauli. Asha's daughter Tara's marriage is in shambles and Tara is suffering from ongoing bouts of depression. She is in no shape to take care of Raka, who is just recovering from a severe case of typhoid. So Raka is dispatched to Nanda Kaul's mountain retreat. Through a few small flashbacks, we see Nanda Kaul's life as a successful wife and mother. It appears that she was tired of being a caretaker for everyone, and has retreated to the mountains to lead a reclusive life. She appears to be a very strong determined woman, a person of very few words. She says, I never cared for music myself. It makes me fidget. I greatly prefer silence.
The sickly great granddaughter, Raka, arrives.
Nanda Kaul thought she looked like one of
those dark crickets that leap up in fright but do not sing, or a mosquito,
minute and fine, on thin, precarious legs. Soon Nanda Kaul discovers that she
and Raka have a lot in common.
Raka is exactly like her. [..] So they worked out the means by which they would live together and each felt she was doing her best at avoiding the other but found it was not so simple to exist and yet appear not to exist.
But there is one fundamental difference: If Nanda Kaul was a recluse out of vengeance for a long life of duty and obligation, her great-granddaughter was a recluse by nature. Nanda Kaul has disconnected herself from her world, but Raka has never had a chance to build any connection with the world. A child who loves solitude, wanders about the mountain and ravines looking for jackals, and churails, peeks at the Nightclub dances, enjoys the wild fire on the mountain, is soon recognized as the Crazy one from the Carignano in the neighborhood.
The small interactions between Nanda Kaul and Raka are insightful, and a few short conversations foretell the events to come. I really enjoyed this minimalist approach throughout the novel. I think this novel is one of the finest examples of the 'show and not tell' style of story telling.
A woman that Nanda Kaul has known since childhood comes to visit them on the mountain. Ila Das is not quite together, and is prone to harassment by the neighborhood hooligans. ... but no matter what she had said, it would have made them bellow - that was the way her voice acted upon everyone.. Besides the unpleasant voice, Ila Das has suffered many other misfortunes in her life and has struggled to survive with some dignity, with kind assistance from Nanda Kaul at crucial times. She chatters nonstop about the times they have shared, bringing out some secrets about Nanda Kaul's life, although nothing is fully revealed until the end of the novel. There are clues: one is when Raka notices Nanda Kaul trying to silence Ila Das. On another occasion, Nanda Kaul is sharing her father's history with Raka: He admired it, you see - he admired anything uncommon, extraordinary. We get another clue when Ramlal the caretaker, is worried that the dust storm may knock over the Hamam and start a fire and Raka is simply enamoured of the idea.
What takes place in the last few pages of the novel catches the reader by surprise. All the signs of the end were present in the novel, in the descriptions, in the tone of the narrator, and in the few chosen words of the characters. This, to me, is the strongest feature of the novel. There is never a word uttered about the oppression that these women have suffered through their lives. The book is a simple portrayal of three women who have a found a way to live in content albeit in seclusion. The injustices and oppressions are for the reader to derive.
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