Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha
The conflict between creativity and motherhood was never more viscerally expressed than in this novel, published at the end of last year by Tilted Axis Press. It’s as though the woman has been sliced in half. The narrator, the 1st person, the I, the ego, looks on and tells the story of the mother, Ishwari, in third person, whose experiences are preventing the I from writing the novel she left her abusive home and young son to write.
But the son is not so easily disposed of and Ishwari finds herself fleeing with Roo. She has some money to tide her over, but not much. First she must find lodgings and then a job. The search for both is desperate, and she is very much dependant on the kindness of strangers. (There is something about Ishwari – a latent sensuality I suspect, that entices men to act favourably towards her.) And let’s be clear here. Without a benevolent landlord and a taxi driver ferrying her around, and babysitting her son for free, she would be on the streets of Kolkata and starving. Hers is very much a hand to mouth existence. She does not need the added complication of her son developing a serious illness, and the rising cost of medical treatment
Ishwari is fighting against the odds from the go. Those moments when it seems that she might be able to successfully to negotiate the obstacles are rare, fleeting. One might say delusional. Then there’s the emotion. Ishwari is a dutiful mother. I can’t quite decide whether she loves her son, but he loves her. She feels guilty at having to lock him in their lodgings, day after day, when she goes out to work. As he sickens, she pays for help. But it’s an ever downward spiral. The irony being that she must work to pay for food; food that her son struggles more and more to digest.
The prose is gritty, realistic in depicting the humiliations that Ishwari must endure, and the detritus of serious illness. Dostoyevskian misery transported to Kolkata. Yet it tears at the heartstrings without an iota of sentimentality. When a light at the end of the tunnel appears for Ishwari, it fails to shine for her son. Once again she is faced with a decision ….
Where is the I, the abandoned ego, while all this is happening?
And I struggle to find my place in this dark novel. I yearn for passion and despair – for that is what makes good literature – while Ishwari seeks a life of joy for herself and her son.
And yet, as we have seen, Ishwari’s life is anything but a life of joy. Rather the telling results in
A novel of headlong descent into an overflowing crisis, of being pushed off the edge of a precipice into the tranquil darkness of the ravine.
Ironically, just the type of novel I wants to write in the first place! The question is how long will it take to reach the precipice? What will turn out to be the final push? And will the reader be able to bear it? In my case, no. My heart cracked. Only to be healed immediately by the final sentence, which, of course, I cannot spoil. But I can say it explains the entire premise of the novel, with which, it turns out, I find myself in disagreement. (Though perhaps only because of my Western POV.)