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Is it the great escape?

Manjula Padmanabhan, whose latest novel, Escape, is out says that reality and experience are important, not geography



DICHOTOMY What we see in the cities in India is not mirrored by the reality of villages and small towns, says Manjula Padmanabhan

Writer, artist, illustrator, cartoonist, playwright and novelist and children’s writer Manjula Padmanabhan says that her latest novel “Escape” is speculative fiction and not prophecy. “This genre offers a writer immense freedo m to write a story that is both fixed in the present, and transcends the geographical obstacles in real life. Reality and experience is important — not geography.” The Delhi-based writer was also the creator of the cartoon strip “Double Talk” with “Suki” about “a quirky anti-establishment girl”. The Picador India-published “Escape” is set in an unnamed country exterminated of women, except for 12-year-old Meiji and her three uncles Eldest, Middle and Youngest, the others being artificially-created slaves called Drones. “The names in the novel do not reveal the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the characters. They aren’t merely culture-neutral — they’re purged of community, religion and context.”

Comparing “Escape” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and P.D. James’ “Children of Men” (also made into a film by the same name by Alfonso Cuaron), Manjula says that having read the former and seen the latter, “‘Escape’ has a different energy, entirely because both the books belong to a much more genteel world where women are not being murdered in western society, as they are in present day India, both as dowry murders and as unborns and just borns.” When it comes to utopian all-women spaces in fiction like Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” and Royeka Sakhawat Hosain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream”, Manjula states that though there have been many explorations of all-women ‘paradises’ in fiction, she has always considered them to be a type of wishful-thinking “which is created in response to the gender-based oppression which is the norm in the world. ‘Escape’ is a little unusual in that it has gone beyond hope or happiness for women in one region because it examines a situation in which natural reproduction has been subverted by technology.”

She believes that there is a strong metaphorical correspondence between the chemical suppression of Meiji’s development and the cosmetic manipulations that many women in the world now do as part of their efforts to enhance their appearance. Commenting on the representation of women in various spheres of life, Manjula feels that the very fact that we continue to regard women’s representation as if it were some kind of achievement is a sign that it’s not considered normal.

“What we see in the cities in India is not mirrored by the reality of villages and small towns, where women are suppressed from the moment of birth to dowry, where women are reduced to commercial objects, assuming that they’re allowed birth at all. So I’m not tremendously impressed by the advances made in the cities by some groups of women.”

Manjula doesn’t see the brutalised, radio-active landscape of her novel as being a male destruction of the environment. At the recent, first-ever South Asian Cartoonist’s Congress by HIMAL in Kathmandu, Manjula says as an event to bring together political cartoonists from the region, “There are very great differences in perspective and language between most other South Asian cartoonists and I — because I am an English-speaker, belonging to a very micro-specific urban culture. It’s difficult to discuss any issues to do with cartoons and cartooning, because most people are not used to thinking seriously about comics.”

Interestingly, Manjula reviewed Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger” for Outlook India and thinks that it’s important to criticise one’s own country — or else what hope is there for improvement? So, she never had any problem with that aspect of Adiga’s novel, except for the style of writing. Manjula, who enjoyed Jose Somoza’s “The Art of Murder” which she found “richly detailed, gorgeously well-written and that it’s more about art than murder”, says that her creative career and output is not very surprising or remarkable. She concludes: “I often make the point that I’m not young — and I’ve been a working artist and writer since the time I left school. Many will have, in the course of some 40 years, produced the same amount of work that I have…”

AYESHA MATTHAN

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