24 July 2008

Book Review: A Girl and A River

Author: Usha K R
Pages: 324
Published by: Penguin
Price: Rs 295

This River runs deep

It's been a while since I've read a book where the author displays such fine sway over her content and craft. Usha K R has been writing for more than a decade now (her last novel was The Chosen) and while she has always received rave reviews for her works, it is her latest book, A Girl And A River that has come in for some much-deserved critical attention. The author was the recipient of the Crossword Award recently, where she won in the Fiction category for the same book --- while William Darlymple received the award in the Non-fiction section.

On the surface (and as the book cover demonstrates), it is a straightforward story --- that of Setu and Kaveri's life -- a brother and sister duo brought up in pre independence Mysore and the unexpected turns their lives take. Nothing prepares you for the complex, ironic web of human relationships, emotions and the play of fate ---- influenced by circumstance as much as by character--- that the author so elegantly unravels.

Usha draws up an exhaustive social scape of the 1930 and '40s with meticulous detailing on every level, studding it with keenly fleshed out characters- their actions closely linked with the moral and social fibre of the time. So you have the patriarch, Mylaraiah -- running his prosperous household-- happy to be a beneficiary under the Britishers and hoping things will run as smoothly as they are. He’s surrounding by charismatic men like Narayana Rao and CG K Sir (the history teacher at school who writes anonymous letters in newspaper columns in support of the freedom struggle), who play a proactive role in getting rid of the British. Mylaraiah, if he feels a sense of inadequacy and guilt about supporting the English, quells these emotions by making donations to welfare projects (soft issues like Khadi and so on) undertaken by Narayana Rao. Mylaraiah’s teenage son, Setu is too overwhelmed by his father's aura to defy him and join any of the prevailing freedom struggle groups. He watches them from a distance - with a glint of envy.

Not surprisingly, the two women of the house –Mylaraiah’s wife Rukmani and their free-spirited daughter Kaveri grow up (since Rukmani too came to the house as a child-bride) finding the outside world with men like Narayana Rao and C G K’s son Shyam respectively irresistibly attractive. To their imaginative, idealistic minds, these were the men of real action, men who could change the course of history with their fiery speeches and ideals. These were local heroes who thought nothing of sacrificing their personal lives and comforts in the wake of the freedoms struggle.

The men of the house dismiss the rising nationalistic fervour in their women as something stemming from 'a vague notion of patriotism' and think it appropriate to nip such feelings in the bid.

Rukmani’s disillusionment comes when Narayana Rao marries off his 12 year old daughter, inspite of preaching against the practice of child marriage. To her mind, this is a breach of trust from the man she loved and respected. It causes her ill-health and she loses her vitality forever. However, the fate that befalls her daughter, Kaveri -- fed on stories of valour in novels-- is the more poignant one. Having lived in her own world of dashing heroes (and nearly found and lost one in Shyam), she is unable to bear the emptiness and drudgery of a loveless marriage - in some measure brought on by her own family.

The author explores all these threads using one common story - that of Setu's grown-up daughter (in the 1980s) trying to unravel the tragic mystery behind the woman who was not just her 'aunt' but something more too.
Usha K R - while recounting the story - gives a vivid picture of pre-independence South India -introducing characters like Dr King (an Englishwoman who treats patients in the town, riding from place to place on a bicycle) and her snobbish niece Ella. Then there other interesting ones like Rukmani’s flame-throwing, quick-witted cousin Shivaswami or Setu’s childhood friend Chapdi Kal.

It’s truly remarkable how Usha crafts this story, never hitting a wrong note once. Yet, for all its wonderful strengths, this is not the easiest of reads. Its language is impeccable but tends to get too wordy at various points. Also, the detailing can be a bit tiresome and heavy for those who want to get on with the story. This book could have easily been 25-30 pages short.
Also, the story keeps moving between two different time span and that can be confusing for the first time reader.

The book's true worth really unfolds with a second reading, if you ask me. The first time I found myself grappling to keep pace with the numerous characters and time-shifts. That's another thing--- this book seems to run at a stretch and it doesn't help that the words keep tumbling on each other. So while it's awe-inspiring to see the writer's command of her subject and language, I wished she’d allowed her narrative to breath easy at some points.
But again, to her credit, Usha constructs the story in a manner wherein some amount of tension pervades the entire story and the suspense is intact till the very end.
Finally, this is a riveting book, one that is dexterous and rich. More importantly, it respects its reader's intelligence by saying a lot and leaving a lot more unsaid.

-Sandhya Iyer

Interview Usha K R

You recently won the Vodafone Crossword Award 2007 for Best Work in English Fiction? Was the honour expected? The reviews to the book of course were very encouraging…

UKR: The book was shortlisted earlier this year for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008. So I had a faint hope. But the short list for the Vodafone Crossword Award was very strong – it showed the sweep of the judges’ expectations. So the honour was unexpected.

You've been a writer for a while now. Would you say it's the first time that your work has won such an honour /visibility?

UKR: Whatever critical attention my novels have received so far – Sojourn in 1998. The Chosen in 2003 and now A Girl and a River has been positive, but the award has brought my work visibility that it did not have before.

You've written two books and other short stories prior to A Girl And A River. Can you tell us a little about your journey as a writer so far?

UKR: If I have to ‘read’ my work, I’d say the broad theme is the contradiction and the constant friction between character and circumstance. I seem to be exploring aspects of this theme almost without realizing it. My preference is for grounded storytelling with an intriguing but organic structure.

A Girl And A River is a complex, rich work of fiction on all counts and functions on various levels at the same time. Was there a single point on which you started the story, after which you weaved in other elements?

UKR: What first came to me with this book were the two children Setu and Kaveri in a 1930s setting – and I knew that I had to work their story along the lines of cocooned lives being torn apart by the tides of history and their own bewilderment in the face of change. This had to run parallel to the larger story of the nation, the country coping with independence.

The book's narrative style, going back and forth, and divided into two different time spans shifting from first person to third, is interesting. How did that choice come about? While it adds more depth to the story, it can be a little confusing to a first-timer….

UKR: You may find it strange but writers often conceive of the story and the structure simultaneously – one growing out of and feeding on the other. I knew that I had to have two distinct voices, not just to separate the chronology of the book but also to signal the different sensibilities and moods of the characters and the times. I also wanted to carry the reader along, inviting her to unravel the mystery along with me, and I feel it has worked.

The book has the backdrop of pre-independence South India…what kind of research went into the book and how much have you drawn from your own life-experiences?

UKR: I had to read quite a bit of local history but the spirit of the book comes from the experiences of many who had lived through those times – I have to thank them for the authentic feel of the book.

7)From the past few years, Indian lit in English has been dominated by diasporic authors. Do you see a problem of 'authenticity' when they write on India? Also, when too much of Indian writing is done by authors based abroad, it can create a skewed vision of things. Do you see it essential that Indian fiction in English must have more books written by authors based in the country itself?

UKR: The question of ‘authenticity’ arises when we are talking of straightforward, realistic accounts. Writers like Rushdie circumvent it with the mode they choose to write in. So long as the end product is convincing and has literary merit, it should not matter whether you live in India or abroad, whether you write in English or any other Indian language. The problem is that of visibility. Books by ‘Indian’ writers do not get noticed and reviewed as much. Which is why I was surprised when ‘Girl … ‘ won the Crossword award. We still look for some form of endorsement from the west.


tyrant_tot said...

I'm the first to post a comment :) Can't wait to read this book now. It sounds like something I would like. I love books rich with detail and characters you either love or hate.

Abhishek Bandekar said...

Sandy- I'm kinda disappointed with this review. Your writing, as always, is effortless and unforced. However, unlike your other reviews, this one is mostly full of platitudes. It was easy reading, but not an insightful one.

I felt you were penning what the book comprises of, rather than writing your analyses of that which it is comprised of. Naturally then, I'm not really sure why the book so appealed to you, except that it did. Or why it deserves the critical acclaim that it has got, except that it does.

Your previous piece on Indian Writing in English continues to amaze me with its open-endedness and clarity in acknowledging that.

sandy said...

Abzee: I would like to think that I have explained why it's a special book - a splendid tapestry--even as I was summarising the story or throwing light on the numerous characters. Tragic irony runs through every situation in this book and that's something Usha achieves with great delicacy.

Anonymous said...

I have read the book and it is very beautiful book to read.Just to let you know this book is also nominated among the 5 best books for the GoldenQuill award. Please check http://www.indiaplaza.in/Goldenquillaward/. You can vote your favorite author and make them win. I am sure Usha K R will win this award.

Sushumna said...

I bought this book off Indiaplaza, it's on a short list for the award.It's a lovely book to read.I love Mysore in that book. And yes, I did vote for it.

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