Sharmistha Mohanty's New Life is a poetic narrative on the complex process of growing up
Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.
ON A NEW PATH Sharmistha Mohanty: `I am bored with normal narrative structures'
New Life, Sharmistha Mohanty's second book, captures the journey of a girl growing up to be a woman in a whole network of relationships she lives and encounters in India and the United States. It is a growing up not just in physical spaces, but in an ethos that these spaces represent both traditional and modern. The journey, which begins in Kolkata, moves on to Iowa and ends in the Himalayas, is a woman's quest to find her place. Where does she belong? To whom does she belong?
Anjali, the protagonist, has to negotiate the "belongingness" with her doting and yet highly restraining father, a mother who couldn't love, with her lover and eventually husband, a Muslim. A husband who seems to have an enormous reservoir of strength to give her all the space she wants, until cracks begin to tell, with the arrival of Afro-American friend Richard, whose body evokes Anjali's otherwise welled-up desire. Anjali consequently negotiates for a place among unknown friends in a spiritual abode. But then, what is the guarantee that the spiritual can stave-off the desire of the body?
Sharmistha brings together a play of geography, traditions, rituals, spirituality, a deep sense of nostalgia and the psychological self in describing the journey of this urban, middle-class woman from and to desire and spirituality. She describes the journey in a style that is at once terse and abrupt, lyrical and expansive, poetic and prose-like.
Sharmistha, who launched her book in the city, says there was no particular reason or context for choosing to write on an urban, middle-class woman. "A writer is interested in a whole range of issues. Things keep changing and you express what you feel at a point of time. I happen to be a woman, so my book may have something to do with that. But this is more a human issue for me. It has nothing to do with being a feminist."
The form she has employed in writing on the urban woman, Sharmistha says, is an effort to break from conventional forms, from straightforward narrative structures with beginning and end.
"I have tried to merge elements of poetry with elements of the novel. I am bringing together lyricism that poetry allows and the arc of time a novel allows. There is a lot of movement. I am completely bored with normal narrative structures. I think the task of the contemporary writer is to find new forms. As life changes, things have to change."
New Life is very different from her first book, Book One. This book, Sharmistha says, is very close to poetry with no plot or narrative. New Life, however, works with a narrative, plot and characters, but characters "not as psychological make-up" but as "essences". The approach of poetry, like in the New Life, allows for equality of characters, says Sharmistha. "There is no foregrounding or backgrounding. It is all in a dialogue."
In fact, the book is an attempt to combine forms and breakaway from straightforward story-telling. But one feels that the form is a tad contrived, to the writing, the issue and the content.
Does it look like the story has been fitted into a form that has been pre-determined? The sudden shift away from the landscapes to the immediacies of a conversation, the entire enterprise of nostalgia, going back to the past and shift to the immediate present look like very formal techniques employed to detail Anjali's "very human" emotions.
Anjali's suffering doesn't appear "natural". We come away reading the life of someone we don't know, we've not met or heard of. The book, though, is bold in some ways and does raise a whole range of provocative questions around form and content.
Sharmistha, however, is convinced that she feels the need to write about "her world". "It is something inside me. It is what I feel and what I want to express." And what impels her to write is certainly not someone else. "If I need to express myself I will do it through writing. Writing is an extension of what I feel."
Though Sharmistha likes the writings of Seabald, Claudio Magris and Renechar among a host of others, her writing, she says, is quite her own. "It is the way I, the writer, am experiencing the world. What does this have to do with any other writer?"
Sharmistha can be reached at email@example.com.
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