– A Book Review

First published in The Book Review – www.thebookreviewindia.org

Author: Dharini Bhaskar

Publisher: Hachette India

Pages: 336, Hardcover, Price: Rs. 599

“…Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
we’re inconsolable.
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.”

Richard Sike’s achingly beautiful poem ‘Scheherazade’ lends not just its breathtaking lines, scattered through Dharini Bhaskar’s consummate debut novel; but also its unique style – half facts, half metaphors, half desires and half fantasies – to mesmerise her readers.

Like Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, whose stories were tinged with anxiety about the dawn, Bhaskar’s story is laced with saudade, a feeling of longing, melancholy, possibly nostalgia? So that even in its happiest moments you are not sure how long the ephemeral feeling will last.

The protagonist Deeya weaves a tale entwining three generations of women; strong women all – who recognise the freedom they hold over their bodies and minds. And yet, when the moment arrives to exercise that freedom, they find their feet bound in the tradition of past women – of mothers and grandmothers.

The male characters are not bound by tradition. They express their freedom, even if sometimes to regret it later. The men are flawed though – either because they cannot speak up, or because they cannot carry through on their promises explicit and implicit – made in the heat of love. Or even because they are insensitive to the women in their lives, driven only by their need to show up their masculinity.

The characters draw you in and you become a voyeur in the most intimate of family scenes; hoping with the five-year old Deeya, peeping through the crack in the wooden chest she hides in, that the inevitable will get transformed, or at the very least, postponed.

Deeya alerts us when memory and imagination co-author her telling of the events, which may not have actually happened the way they are written. Memories of a five-year old shade the stories in the hue of childhood’s hopefulness. Nothing is anchored in this beautiful tale of possibilities. So in the end, it is Deeya’s stories you hear– the probabilities she conjures up from the happenings of her twenty something life. This we do know– “We’re doomed to spend our adult lives recovering from our childhoods.”

The nuances of each character are beautifully etched. Deeya with her father’s talent of hearing the unsaid, of living in her own far-away world; Ranja with her mother’s inability to accept the truth and Tasha– precocious and confident, but surrendering in the end. “For we don’t choose the stories that frame our lives; stories sniff us out and claim us.”

You lean in, wanting to know more, hoping against hope that the unquiet characters of this beautiful novel will find peace, while they seem to hurtle in exactly the opposite direction. It is a book of anguish, beautifully rendered, the telling of which belies past heartbreaks. “What can one say of childhood grief? That it is lonely. That it is invisible. That it is denied the vocabulary granted to adult despair.” And about adult despair– that “One mourns in the present tense.”

Most amazing is the fact however, that you never judge – because each character is complete; none painted black or white. I did want at times though, to shout out to a character saying: “Go, you fool, just go! Don’t miss the boat!” Something I have rarely felt the need to do in the books I read.

The story moves and shifts although the locations do not vary very much. A lot of Bombay, a bit of Delhi, a flash of Norway, Bombay again and then the US. This story takes on the protagonist’s restlessness.

Dharini Bhaskar’s language flows like a refreshing mountain spring, with wild abandon. The turn of phrases- all her own, like “Shadow boxing with pronouns.” She avoids all clichés, although: “Aren’t clichés the greatest truths?” Her story is a conversation with her readers– told interspersing events and characters from two distinct times, sharing possibilities, even probabilities.

Ms. Bhaskar has a romance with words. Words from around the world. She holds us spellbound with her cache of exquisite sounds: Saudade, tartle, koi no yokan, and mamihlapinatapai. Words to roll around your tongue and experience the bliss of. Words that are well nigh impossible to translate.

Her book is peppered with references to Greek mythology, Japanese phrases, Portuguese thoughts, world literature, Sigmund Freud, and a host of writers, notably Anne Carson, as well as a fascinating tribal anecdote. The scrupulous referencing at the back of the book is helpful.

These Our Bodies Posessed by Light, is an exceptional novel, reminding me a little, of another extraordinary debut – of Arundhati Roy.