by R K Biswas
The year is still young, and Pervin Saket’s newly launched book, Urmila, all of two months old, has already gone into reprint! That is happy news indeed, especially for a debut novel. I am not too surprised though, because it took me about two sittings (the second was required because I have chores to attend!) to polish off the book.
These days, feminist interpretations of almost anything that has lain for centuries under the Indian sun, has become so common that one becomes predisposed to suppose this must be the case with every book by a female Indian author. So right at the onset, I’d like to state that Urmila is not a feminist take on any female mythological figure. Even though in Kaliyug (and I am not referring to the old Bollywood movie of the same name here, though this novel does have its filmy indulgences) parallels have been known to occur. Similar situations and characters as the ones in our epics, sometimes occur in our own lives and times or within the pages of a book. It could be a half-forgotten figure, a little mentioned character, a persona pushed to the margins that intrigues us enough to seek him or her in both real and conjured worlds. Urmila, Lakshan’s wife is one such. Teased out in Pervin Saket’s novel of the same name, her story is neither a retelling nor a retracing of her namesake’s biography. Though there are parallels here as well.
While Rama’s Sita has almost been deified to death, with her real persona being left to the conjectures of the somewhat incredulous and often severely questioning women of today, Lakshman’s Urmila has remained elusive, and hardly any poet has thought it necessary to examine her story, let alone her soul. In The Ramayana, Urmila was destined to endure. As is Saket’s Urmila. Though how she endures is an entirely different story.
Urmila, in Saket’s book, challenges her fate, using her own set of colours and brushes to repaint her destiny. Stroke by stroke she reclaims her canvas, even when she too has to go through (her personal) fourteen years of neglect. The perpetuator in her case is her husband Shree, and Shree alone. (It is interesting how Saket has preferred to use a generic term for man to name her Urmila’s husband; read her views in the interview.) Shree is the younger brother who prefers to follow his older sibling and sister-in-law without a backward glance at his wife.
Since these are modern times the place of exile is Dubai as per the demands of the novel’s plot. Needless to say it is the most convenient of places. There is no perilous journey involved. No Ravans to fight. The brothers, Puru and Shree, leave behind a life of comfort and wealth to start from scratch. The chief architect of their banishment, the Kaikeyi of the novel, is an old jilted lover of the family’s patriarch, and a long-time family friend, Roopali-kaki. Once again, the two, Kaikeyi and Roopali-kaki, are very different women dealing with situations that are poles apart. Our modern day Dasharath, proprietor of a flourishing real estate business in Mumbai, and father of the adored Puru and the adoring Shree, despite being a good husband, keeps his weakness a secret, becoming an unwilling puppet in the hands of a relentlessly scheming woman.
Saket opens her novel with a nod of disapproval from Shree. It wings out like an arrow that once drew a forbidding circular line, but here the voice on which it is borne is Urmila’s: “He would simply find it distasteful that I am in the vortex of this controversy,” thereby fixing the axis upon which her narrative spins, unfolding her fate. The controversy she is referring to is a painting done by her (Urmila). Art is her succour during her exile from marital life. The story of her life begins, perhaps, “ …Where history and legend become mythology, churned together…where a bridge once possibly stood, marking a union, however brief, a hope however lost, and a love however doomed.”
In Saket’s book, there is Vani, Sita to her Urmila. An orphan whose parents were beholden to Urmila’s, Vani grows up in the latter’s home, making herself a self-appointed (but not discouraged) housekeeper and cook, sleeping on a cot in the kitchen. She literally runs the house for her benefactors, almost like a poor relative who makes herself indispensable, and therefore un-discardable. Despite the palpable difference in their status Urmila loves Vani like the sister she never had. She is nevertheless disconcerted when Puru, her brother-in-law-to-be, announces that he wishes to marry Vani on Urmila’s wedding day. The rest of the family on both sides are shocked. The situation that leads up to this unimaginable development – this is after all middle class Mumbai, where tradition, class and caste wrap society tightly in its coils – are reminiscent of some older generation Bollywood commercial movies. Here it is fantasy toned down with a smidgeon of reality. The scene that erupts at the wedding is likewise cinematic, even a bit incongruous. (Later on in the story, when exile looms before them, and Shree decides to follow Puru and Vani for no good reason, other than his odd emotional need to be with his older brother, the flavour of incongruity lingers). Be that as it may, Saket’s narrative shrugs off the slight bump in the flow without losing pace, and soon immerses her readers into the everyday world of a wealthy suburban Mumbai family, creating in places landscapes reminiscent of Vikram Chandra’s earlier works, in her depictions of kitchen politics, the aromas and colours of Maharashtrian cuisine, the rules and intricacies of bhishi gatherings, the unravelling of family secrets, and in Urmila’s case her changing status in her marital home.
Shree’s desertion is noticed and disapproved of by all and sundry, especially his own parents. Urmila becomes stronger with each passing year, not only as a character but also as a daughter-in-law, until she is elevated by her father-in-law, ultimately replacing his absent sons. Urmila evolves from a pampered only child of a well-to-do family into a responsible and mature adult, metamorphosing into an admirable woman. A woman who is strong enough to shake the shoulders of an indifferent and male-dominated society. She looks at her world in the eye, daring it to retaliate, with her brave and unconventional choices. She discards the crutches that a man can offer, be he a father, a husband, a brother-in-law or a friend. She does it without raising herself on a pedestal, and is in every way a believable, relatable woman, moulded by Saket’s deft penmanship.
The novel’s narrative arc, regardless of any allusion to a woman from the epics, is fodder enough for a satisfying book. And coupled with Saket’s lyrical prose – and one comes across many passages that one must stop to read and savour again even as impatience builds up to reach the story’s end — this debut novel strikes the right balance. Urmila by Pervin Saket holds the reader’s interest and at the same time creates pools of ponderings. So even after the book is read, the pages beckon for a re-taste of Saket’s prose.
RK Biswas is the author of a novel – “Culling Mynahs and Crows” (Lifi Publications, India) and a short story collection – “Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women” (Authorspress, India). Her third book is forthcoming in mid-2016. Her short fiction and poetry have been published worldwide; notably in Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong) Per Contra (USA), Markings (Scotland),Flash: The International Short-Short Story magazine (UK), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Kritya (India), South (UK), Pratilipi (India), Eclectica (USA), Nth Position (UK), Crannog (Ireland) The Little Magazine – India, Going Down Swinging (Australia) and Etchings (Australia), among others. Her Novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was listed as one of the 20 most popular books published in 2014 by The Readers’Club, Delhi. Her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. Her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s Notable stories of the net in 2007. Her poem “Bones” was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com