No magic here
SUGUNA IYER'S first novel, The Evening Gone, opens with a female narrator who is "memory, recorder, scripteur", and who has "a fancy notebook with different colours for different chapters." And she rummages through the relics of the past, overtly struggling to handle quite a handful of the storylines that crisscross time and space. Being too well aware of the difficulties of presenting a mega context spanning generations of people, from the early decades of the 20th Century to modern times, the narrator claims in the very beginning itself, "If one stood there and thought that these fields might have been the very fields traversed by a bridegroom's party on the way to a wedding, out of bounds for a fourteen year old girl dreaming of who knows what, crossed by aspiring men abandoning Vedic training for modern science; if one stood and thought hard enough about all that, would it appear as if by magic, wished or whistled in by thought simply because it had to be a beginning, a setting for what one wanted to say?"(p.1)
Smruti, the youngest daughter of Chandrasekaran and Visalakshi, who has married into the family of Subramaniam, one of the scientists who had closely worked with NSR, the Nobel prize winning Indian scientist, is the narrator by virtue of her access to an inside view of certain events and people and hence is able to tell the tale. But the ramifications of the story that include too many people, too many incidents, too many details that are linked and intertwined in some way or other, at best turns out to be a disjunctive narrative structure. A single reading will not suffice to get the relationships, milieu or time frame right. Nor can one expect a linear movement in this novel that deals with such an unwieldy matter.
It looks as if the author has used a variety of cinematographic lenses during the telling of the tale. At times the varying focus clinches some interesting insights, (the strenuous life and untiring spirit that is the essence of scientific spirit); or the scenes of scenic beauty in Kerala. While some pierce through the social fabric of Indian life, (the hide-bound orthodoxy brushing shoulders with modern science and western education) some plumb the depths of human psyche (in Dorai's feelings for Vishalam, or Smruti's frequent trangressional reveries). Such snatches offer the readers new and thought-provoking perspectives on the nuances of Indian life in its changing kaleidoscopic hues. Her forte is the ability to summon images that hook the immediate sense of period and place, that are stylish pictures of a bygone era. Though the story is held within the framework of the life and achievements of NSR, (whose character is inspired by that of C.V. Raman,) family, relationships, tradition, modernity, education, love, marriage, social and cultural flavours, inflict and impinge in the consciousness and real life of the men and women who people the novel. The author's keen observation of people and their customs that reflect the dilemmas that run through the novel, and her sensitive nature have added a certain richness and reality to the tale.
The author juggles an increasing cast of characters with the demands of a multi-layered plot to give some form and substance to the chaotic complexities of life; and to explore the inner recesses of consciousness of the human beings caught in the social/cultural fabric when trying to come to terms with their individual dreams and aspirations. There is a tendency to editorialise that is not a virtue of a good storyteller. The creative edge that can excel in "showing" rather than "telling", so well illustrated by Wayne C. Booth, in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction seems to evade this writer. Though in some of the briefer stretches that are sometimes very evocative, experiential and resonant, one sees the creative pulse and promise of the writer.
The Evening Gone, Suguna Iyer, Penguin Books India, 2001, p.185, Rs. 200.
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