A novel of unsettling moralities and sympathy with the wretched

Every once in a while, a book comes your way that reminds you that reading, at its best, is a full-body activity. Devibharathi’s The Solitude of a Shadow, translated by N Kalyan Raman, is one such book – the characters here don’t merely get anxious, they “sense the arrival of anxiety’s heavy footsteps in their hearts”. And so indeed, do the readers. Raman’s translation holds this tension well – from the first to the last page, his words had me sitting stiff, every muscle tight with anticipation.

The book opens itself up to the complexity of the world we live in and from this confrontation emerges a deeply compelling story. It begins with the unnamed protagonist chancing upon a hated figure from his past, Karunakaran – the powerful, upper-caste loan shark who had raped the narrator’s sister, Sharada, when they were children. The book follows the central character’s quest for vengeance – a quest that is complicated by his love for Karunakaran’s daughter, Sulo. It traces the ways in which social identities like caste and gender embed themselves in our minds, even as we seek to free ourselves. It investigates what trauma does to people and the impossibility, in some ways, of escaping its clutches.

A paralysed reality

This haziness of trauma is mirrored in the instability of the narration. The book swings between past and present with no clear map to guide you. The narrator’s righteous anger is repeatedly belied by his repulsive behaviour. Every decision of the protagonist’s opens up a web of unforeseen implications until the reader is left paralysed by his reality. Each character is a site waiting to be excavated, and yet, the author is not an archaeologist. The book does not look to mine meaning out of people, it reveals them for what they are – flawed, and indeed, wounded humans operating within a web of power relations far bigger than their own lives.

It took my urban Bangalorean mind a while to get acquainted with the world of semi-rural Tamil Nadu where Devibharathi’s story is set. His is not a world that proclaims its own imperfections. But slowly, I found myself profoundly affected by the horrors enacted within the story. Even as Devibharathi wipes away the fog hiding the realities of caste, class, and gender, he refuses to explain them to us. Raman, for his part, crafts an English that retains the euphemisms and metaphors that stand in for caste and gender in the Tamil. The revulsion, when it hits – and hit it will – is all the more harrowing because of this language of indirectness. The upturned chrysanthemums that stand in for Sharada’s breasts, the “pinkness” of Sulo’s love, the often-hunted nasuvan kuruvi birds that the narrator feels deeply connected to all become symbols, as intriguing as they are repulsive.

The namelessness of the narrator is crucial to his story. He is reduced almost to a mere vessel for the roles he plays – vengeful brother, helpful “Clerk Sir”, hot-and-cold lover, and so on. Reading his own narration brings out the painfulness of such a life. The use of the first-person narrative adds intimacy to his suffering, making you feel for the protagonist even as you recognise that he is turning into something truly wretched. The narrator’s awareness that he was in fact, writing a story, added an interesting touch to the book. This was not a self-conscious rupture of the fourth wall, but merely a detail casually mentioned ever so often. It made me more aware of the bias or unreliability of the narration. Each time the narrator dismissed a character as unimportant or left out someone’s words or reactions, a voice cropped up in my mind: to ask about the things left unsaid.

To ask and to answer

The point is to question the fragmentary, inaccurate nature of memory – both the narrator’s and mine, as the reader. Generating this self-questioning is, I think, the book’s greatest achievement. It unsettles the black-and-white moralities we try to organise our lives by, forcing us to occupy the greyness of reality. The book brings to the fore the things we try to push to the furthest edges of our consciousness. It shows us the ways in which our lives are mapped out for us even before we are born, forcing us to recognise the limits of individual action. I found myself questioning everything I held true – why was it that I felt as badly for the rapist as I did for his victim? Why did the vivid description of a sickly, suffering body evoke some kind of sadistic pleasure in me? The book forced me to give into my darkest emotions and recognise that they are controlled, in some ways, by social forces far more complex than we can understand.

The book makes for a gripping, one-sitting read. Raman’s translation is an important addition to a new kind of English that holds well the nuances and unspoken realities of life in small-town India. The novel promises to haunt you long after you are done reading it, interrupting you every day with the very questions, emotions, and realisations that we try to push away.

The Solitude of a Shadow, Devibharathi, translated from the Tamil from N Kalyan Raman, HarperCollins India.

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