A nirvanic embrace
Atonement is a novel that should be read for the way language serves the cause of a disciplined narrative and wields power in its verbal thrift, says LAKSHMI KANNAN.
IN today's crowded and loudly hyped market of Indo-English fiction, complete with book launches, cocktails, readings and photographs taken for page three of newspaper supplements, Atonement makes a quiet entry as an elegant, slim novel with streamlined contents within six sections titled simply as Mother, Stalemate, Succour, Bahu, Munni and Mother Again.
If "Mother" begins as a contentious issue for the daughter Vaishalee, it is addressed squarely, then resolved in the end in unexpected ways. In fact, the entire story of the novel moves on unexpected lines that border on the improbable. Vaishalee, who could never quite empathise with her mother's shored up grudge against her husband, and life in general, because as a child-bride, her girlhood was crushed under a forced marriage, finds herself very moved when Munni, a classic case of child labour in her mother-in-law's household, is pushed into marriage with a coarse, older man. Vaishalee fights with Munni's mother and asks her to set the young daughter free. Paradoxically, this sudden change of heart has the inherent credibility of all that is random, or illogical in life. At a point in time, we are unprepared to accept some people on their terms, unprepared for the kind of "truth" they profess, until we ripen later someday and readily accept that very "truth" easily. And this kind of time comes on its own good time. Therefore Munni's story becomes, in effect, the proverbial "story within a story".
Put simply like this, one may wonder who is atoning and for what? The mother who, in softening towards Munni goes so far as to part with a big sum of money for her "freedom" from squalour and darkness? Or the daughter who atones for her initial lack of feelings towards her mother? Whichever way you look at it, what is equally important is the strange, inextricable way the lives of these people touch, complicate, interlock, bind and then liberate in unforeseen ways, with each one atoning for something or other.
In the bare outline of the story, there is a father, a mother, a daughter Vaishalee (the narrator of the story), Chetan, the man she loves and marries and Munni, the 12-year-old maid. The father, a "failure" on worldly terms, ekes out a living as a journalist who is forever anticipating outstanding checks. A figure which is a triumph in the art of characterisation. Long after one has read the novel, he lingers on in the mind, engrossed in the Mixed Economy, his subject, tapping on his Remington in his sparsely furnished room, an elegiac humour wrapping around his wispy presence. In contrast, the mother has been sketched with a "warts and all" pen. She is shown as "festering in her memory pads" who, in the process of punishing her husband, maims herself too and snuffs the music out of the violin she plays, occasionally, mostly when upset. The violin slumbers, allowing her complaint about the "lost girlhood" to become the only raaga of her life. Vaishalee graduates with the help of Khubchand's Crib Notes given to her by Chetan, her down-to-earth lover, who provides a sane point of view to her tangled life. He notes Vaishalee's obsession, first with her mother, and now with Munni. She wants Munni to regain her right to freedom, to literacy, the right to her child body, and to the poetry of her girlhood. Munni's mother Kisni, is quick to capitalise on what she perceives as Vaishalee's "weakness". She stoutly demands Rs. 40,000 as her "price" to set her daughter free. Vaishalee decides to get the money, from who else? Her own mother, who once lived like Munni. So one munni liberates the other munni.
A bare-boned story, would you say? Yet, it is fleshed out on the sensuous texture of the author's language. Appropriately, in a style which is understated, spare, but sinewy in its taut, tensile strength. Its range can sweep up contrasting states. From the atmosphere of a starving Tamil Brahmin household clinging to the last shreds of "respectability" in its genteel poverty, to the stark contrast in the bullying muscle power of the jhuggi-jhompri working classes and on to the soft gossamer delicacy in the lines about music anticipated describing the mother's faltering attempts at playing <147,1,0>on the violin. "The music sprayed through the closed door of her room, sometimes sure, sometimes wavering, arrested on the threshold of the song. She had to cross the threshold to enter its core. She had to have the hoist to make the dive in".
Critical response to works by women often tends to stop short of taking cognisance of language use. A preoccupation with "what the characters do and don't", how a story "ends", or how "feminist" or not the writer is in her stance, becomes a reductive sociological reading of a literary work. Atonement is a novel that should also be read for the way language serves the cause of a disciplined narrative, and wields power in its verbal thrift. That is something for the times of noise pollution we live in. Twelve-year-old Munni whose face "was a folk doll's face, foregrounded of feature and line, but muted of song" has this fiance who "had a sly brawn and physique that needed tender childmeat for nourishment". Cutting down the frills of visual description, the language evokes the felt, the touched, complete with the gripes, and the near-clinical symptoms in the pain of living. Hunger gnaws at their entrails while their debt to the vegetable vendor swells: "Sixty five rupees. It was a big amount for the small bites we'd been having. All the sagging, food-starved ducts and glands so bravely borne". Samples of style are legion. The book has to be savoured.
Atonement is Narasimhan's fifth novel. Like in some of her previous novels, there is yet another mother-daughter conflict that one is familiar with. Only here, the conflict is at last resolved in a way that sets both the mother and the daughter free of their obsessive equation. When Vaishalee tells her mother, "Liberation is setting the bird within you free, so that it can fly", she could well be speaking for herself. Munni, the catalyst, brings this about. But it entails a rite of passage, in this case, a "Nirvanic embrace" of the Mother and Munni and Vaishalee. What the mind is shy to admit, what the heart finds difficult to verbalise, one assimilates with the senses. In the tactile appeal of Vaishalee's unspoken words, "The warmth of Munni's hair seeped into my fingertips. It flavoured my breath. The taste and temperature of my hair was different. The chemistry of my skin and my bloodmass were different like basil is different from cinnamon". Having begun the novel with Alingana Baba, the Embracing Babajee, Narasimhan returns the reader to the same Babaji of the "Nirvanic embrace" which somehow restores the people, much like the way thousands of believers feel restored when hugged by "Amma", Mata Amritanandamayi. No questions asked.
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