One feature of the countrywide anti-CAA-NRC protests is that women are present in large numbers. They are vocal about their concerns, form protective circles and unhesitatingly march ahead. In the case of Indian publishing in English, a protest of another sort can be seen with the increasing number of debut novels by women writers. This takes the form of speaking up in a manner that is frank, unashamed, intimate and insightful.
Recently, there was Amrita Mahale’s
Milk Teeth, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, and Jane Borges’s Bombay Balchao. Before that, among others, there was Mukta Sathe’s A Patchwork Family, Sharanya Manivannan’s The Queen of Jasmine Country, and Shubhangi Swarup's Latitudes Of Longing. These first novels range from Mumbai to Kashmir to the Andamans and beyond, and deal with the faultlines between the past and present, between freedom and domesticity, and between the environment and human desires.
Two new fiction debuts can be said to represent the candid nature of these narratives. These are Rheea Mukherjee’s
The Body Myth, which delves into the dynamics of an unusual relationship between three people, and Avni Doshi’s Girl in White Cotton, which scrutinises a daughter’s tangled bonds with her mother over the years. Like paperweights that contain flowers encased in brittle glass, both novels draw our attention to the colours of self-preservation. Protagonists interrogate their ways of life
There is a taut, enclosed quality to these first-person accounts in which protagonists interrogate their ways of life and seek alternatives that will allow them to thrive. To think that these are issues only faced by women would be a literal way of looking at it. The characters’ detailed self-examination of their needs and fears make us aware of the oppressive structures that all of us labour under.
The Body Myth is set in a cosmopolitan Indian town referred to as Suryam, a place known for its prized rasagura fruit which is like “a soaked berry, bursting with the tang of a lemon, with the texture of pudding and the sweetness of mango”. Here, a young, widowed schoolteacher comes across a woman suffering a seizure in a public park; her attempts to help lead to a close friendship between her, the woman, and her husband. It’s a relationship that quickly becomes intimate, and the secrets and lies between them cause the teacher to re-examine fundamental questions: “How did I break out of the young widow cliché? How did I manage to work? Where were my scars?”
Girl in White Cotton, on the other hand, is primarily set in Pune. The central character here is an artist, a young married woman whose mother is losing her memory. This situation sets off a series of recollections to do with the past: Her early, neglected life with her mother in an ashram, her time in boarding and then art school, and the fraught relationships with the others in her life, including her grandmother and husband. “My art is not about lying,” she says. “It’s about collecting data, information, finding irregularities. My art is about looking at where patterns cease to exist.” This, in fact, is the method she applies to her life, too. Fresh, strong voices
The way in which the past affects the present is a characteristic of both novels. They are non-chronological, taking a current situation and then weaving in background to move ahead. However, while
The Body Myth uses the past to brocade the present, Girl in White Cotton uses the present to tunnel back into the past. The teacher in Suryam comments: “I must make room for the distractions of my past… don’t you carry pieces of your past with you every day?” Meanwhile, speaking of her mother, the artist in Pune says, “It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time.”
The characters in these novels are quite consciously not drawn in black and white, and often contravene communal taboos and expectations. Likeability is not an overriding concern here. The teacher in
The Body Myth has concurrent relationships with the husband and wife she befriends, and gets into trouble at school for inappropriate methods; the artist in Girl in White Cotton can be spiky and combative, assuaging childhood wounds by means of unsuitable relationships, food, and, of course, her art.
The weaknesses of many first novels are also present.
The Body Myth can be weighed down by its philosophising, especially as the protagonist is a self-proclaimed fan of de Beauvoir and Foucault, among others. Further, the narrative often reveals its strategies upfront, such as when we’re told that “increasingly disorienting timelines help keep me from exposing the truth”. With Girl in White Cotton, on the other hand, there is an uneasy tension between solipsism and the necessity of bringing in other fleshed-out characters with their outside worlds.
Both novels are noteworthy for their fresh, strong voices. These are women who unapologetically if waveringly progress towards finding their own place in the world, not content with having it defined for them. The very beginnings of both books reveal their iconoclastic flavour. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” is how
Girl in White Cotton starts, while the opening paragraph of The Body Myth advises us to swallow the story in one gulp, like a pill, because “I intend to write the truth”. The truth, more than ever, is what all of us need now.
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.