For love of history
The Small House is a novel about angst and the fragility of relationships.
The Small House, Timeri N. Murari, Penguin India, p.314, Rs. 325.
Timeri N. Murari’s new novel The Small House, corporeal and aggressive, exotic and fervent, is a journey into the past as well as a confrontation with contemporary angst and its accompanying fragility of human relationships.
It is both tragic and entertaining, giving a perspective that is sociologically modern and historically a reassessment of the past and the way it bears down on the sensitive who emotionally cannot ever separate themselves from days gone by. Indeed, as Nietzsche maintained, the idea of eternal return is mysterious and perplexing.
It is the story of two women, Roopmati and Tazneem; one who is obsessed with saving her marriage, even though she suspects that her husband Hari is a sexual deviant, and the other, who, on discovering that her husband has a mistress tucked away in the “small house”, desperately endeavours to replace the mistress to experience the passion on the other side of the monotony of a conjugal existence.
The burden of the past has always been taken by Roopmati Malhotra as an affirmative source of energy and refuge, a retreat into the “womb of history, into the silence of forgotten kings”. But one fine day, she receives a strange message that sends her reeling into an entirely different world of her childhood. She belongs to the royal family of Krishnarangam which is one reason why she is an ardent scholar of history, of ancient wars and kingdoms. On the personal level, she is a deeply emotional woman who fondly remembers her days with her brother who supposedly died early on the high seas.
Roopmati’s sensibilities remain charged, especially in her dreams where she waits for a lover. It is then that the elemental life she desires comes in full force: “it had rained overnight, and the strong smell of warm earth and water settling the restless dust, replenished her confidence in life. Nowhere else did such an intoxicating perfume exist and she breathed it in deeply, holding it at as long as possible, thinking of other times, before releasing that memory”.
To her, the world of romance and her past come across vividly unconfused in contrast to her present chaos which she feels she can handle only in a state of wakefulness. The world of dreams thus means more to her than her present where she has accepted even the daily separation from her husband when they retire to separate bedrooms. She compares herself with the birds that seem to agitate with the coming of the day, “resenting the sun’s rise waking them from secure dreams”. And when Roopmati wakes up into a world of sleaze she confronts men who get aroused by property and profit and women who exude wiliness and are “serpentine in [their] sexuality”.
Roopmati refuses to negotiate with the present, finally seeking her husband Khris’s approval in living for a few days in the small house of his mistress before returning to him. She reconciles with him after he opens up his heart and for the first time reveals his passionate love for her. It is she who has never tried to give herself to him completely. The all-saving catharsis comes in the end with the exorcising of her brother Tommy from her troubled mind, who has turned a smuggler and a sexual adventurer. The vanished brother whom she reports to the police for his criminal occupation is spurned by her. It is Khris who stands up now as her defendant when Tommy is provoked by Roopmati and reminded how he had once scarred her everlastingly by calling her “pudge-wudge, all wobbly body, bloody awkward” when she wanted to dance with him with her clothes off when as little children. She will not allow him to come anywhere near her royal inheritance.
Roopmati retires to the small house with her dog for a reprieve from her present existence. Her past now has been tangibly intercepted by Khris standing up for her. The open-endedness of the novel is a pointer to Roopmati, alone in the small house, taking stock of her present life before she decides to come back to her husband. With her brother expunged from her life, she seems more relaxed at the end of the novel. But it is difficult to deny that one’s past has many devious ways of encroaching upon the present. Memories have a strange way of coming back to us, a sad reminder that the lost period will never return.
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