Sunday, March 14, 2010

The storm within

Anita Nair’s latest novel suggests that we examine our personal choices to see how far they are complicit with the quagmire we have created, and in which our children must live...

The distinguishing features of Anita Nair’s fiction, exhibited right from her debut novel The Better Man, are her command over the craft of storytelling and her ability to navigate between the more nuanced demands of literary fiction, of character and plot and the broad brush strokes, the drama, the excesses, the grand stands and the Manichean play of pulp. The impact of Nair’s writing depends upon how well she balances between the two and in Lessons in Forgetting, her fourth novel, she hones her art to perfection.
Lessons in Forgetting is in the main the story of two people — Meera, dutiful wife and mother, inveterate page 3 party-goer, writer of cookbooks and ruler on corporate etiquette and J A Krishnamurthy (Jak), a professor and scientist attached to an American university, who specialises in the study of cyclones — two complacent and fairly replete people who suddenly discover that like the cyclones that Jak studies, they have been living in the deceptively calm eye of a storm, which gives no clue to the masses of air that are building up and which will soon wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting coastline. And it is from the calm eye of the storm that Nair takes us into the heart of the turbulence in her characters’ lives, scene by scene, page by turning page.
Meera has to confront the fact that her husband Giri has run away and she has now to earn a living, support her children and care for her mother and grandmother who live with her in the monumental colonial-style Lilac House. Jak, divorced and casually cruising among his colleagues’ wives, applying his pattern-seeking scientific mind to single out those “he knew to be most vulnerable and hence most eminently f**kable,” has to return to India because his 19-year old daughter has had an accident.
Smriti, his beautiful, free-spirited daughter, who had chosen to return to India from the US for her graduate studies, has been attacked and violated in a coastal town in Tamil Nadu which she was visiting as part of an educational project with an NGO on the girl child. Even as he takes charge of his paralysed and traumatised daughter, he discovers that she has stumbled upon a thriving, illegal business in female foeticide.
Like a light fibre-glass frame that bears a heavy load, with no protruding rivets and ribs to show how the whole holds together, the scaffolding of this novel bears its dark story, the lives of the different characters touching lightly, intersecting in unexpected ways, till they are interwoven inseparably.
We see Nair’s subtler skills at play in the tracery of Meera’s genteel life. We can understand how Giri is captivated by the lace-and-linen Lilac household, with its interesting dowagers who speak of “Sir Richard Attenborough and Satyajit Ray in the same breath” and of “the time David Lean was almost here when he was shooting ‘A Passage to India’.”

Of discoveries

Meera, who has successfully “strangled panic even before it made known its presence,” through all the crises in her life. “...when daddy died leaving very little behind ... when Giri was laid off work, when Nayantara left home at seventeen, ...when the septic tank overflowed and the mushy sweet pong of faeces began permeating their every breath, ...when she discovered a lump in her breast and in Giri’s briefcase a secret sheaf of bills...,” now has to move forward, stumbling and coping. Middle-aged Meera has to unlearn to be Giri’s “Goose girl of the lilac house”, and rediscover her natural self.
Simultaneously, Nair deals her characters a melodramatic hand; they are confronted with extreme situations and offered drastic choices; their emotions are wrung out and their appetites are stoked reflexively — this relentless pattern can be rather fatiguing and it is here that one looks for a finer discrimination from the author. Fathers and husbands desert families; sons predictably grow violent or withdrawn; marriage, sooner than later, palls and gives way to adultery; deserted wives take on young lovers, the older women shoulder on alone.

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