Reviewed by Dr Usha Bande
Author: Sinjini Sengupta
Publisher: Readomania Publishing, 2017
Price: INR 250/-
When a debut novel grips your imagination and disturbs you for long after you have put it down, it certainly is a work to reckon with. Sinjini Sengupta’s Elixir belongs to this category. It grasps the fine line between dream and reality, light and darkness, and life and death to expose the turbulent psyche of its protagonist, Manisha. The novel’s subtitle succinctly classifies it as “A Dream of a Story” and “A Story of a Dream”. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, A Dream within a Dream highlights the unreality of this world as ‘Maya’ (illusion, a dream) that is suggestive of the two worlds Manisha inhabits. Yet, to read Elixir as a dream-novel would be to limit its scope. To me, it is the story of the mysteries of the human mind told with masterly strokes. A whole lot of complexity comes to the fore and the novel turns out to be both delirious and dreary, constantly vacillating between the nebulous and the luminous.
In a way, Elixir is a quest novel about the protagonist’s journey to grapple with her self. In the bargain she loses her equilibrium and slides into neurosis. She is not psychotic, but she could well be a border-line case. The beginning encapsulates the problem of marital incompatibility and discord with the resultant silence leading to other complications. The labyrinthine structure is woven around the victim-protagonist and the plot navigates us through the work-a-day life of Manisha Roy, an efficient and award-winning executive vis-à-vis Manisha, the unfulfilled wife and dreamer in search of “pure happiness”.
What is this “pure happiness” she seeks? Do her dreams provide her an escape route from her agonizing existence? Will she find inner peace? A reader has to make his/her way through ominousness, sadness and mystery and get answers to these questions.
Elixir is Manisha’s story – the story of her loneliness, desperation, emptiness and anguish. Amit, her handsome, upcoming, entrepreneur husband, her nagging in-laws who persistently make her feel unwanted and uncared-for, her old, helpless father and her colleagues stand on the periphery. At the center is Manisha with Amit on one side and her unnamed lover on the other. Her life, like the rains, is cheerless, bleak and suffocating. The novel opens on the day of the 10th wedding anniversary of Manisha and Amit. While Amit is cheerful and enthusiastic, Manisha is inert, uninterested and distant. Her halfhearted presence notwithstanding, the party is a great success; and at this point the reader gets an inkling of the brewing trouble.
Sinjini Sengupta takes care to tell us several times in the span of 250+ pages that the protagonist is beautiful, smart, intelligent and successful and an award winning executive. However, the Manisha we encounter is a disorganized, inefficient, lethargic and shoddy housewife – a bad home-maker. Delving deep in Manisha’s past we get to know the reasons – a motherless infant, she has had a lonely childhood; her grandmother died during her girlhood, after marriage, her husband Amit, the “Mom’s boy” is totally unconcerned and incapable of standing by her. With no anchor to hold on to, her life becomes unbearable. Desolation and emptiness hover in the atmosphere and suddenly one night Manisha discovers joy of liberation in the dream world.
The story of her dream goes back to the evening when after office she entered a café for a cup of coffee. Here she sees an old man at the counter and another man at the corner table. Unaccountably, she dreams of this man that night and thereafter he becomes her dream-companion, her lover. She enjoys intimate moments with him; she dresses up for him, sets up her home with him, pursues her hobbies of painting and sculpture; and she lives in this make-believe world of happiness. One of the birds that she sculpts in her waking-dream is an albatross. Albatross gives the novel a supernatural tinge and prepares the reader to expect something weird and uncanny. The albatross imagery and water symbolism create a sense of foreboding. Rain, thunder, storms and the sea are persistently used to highlight her mental landscape. Sometimes, Manisha contemplates walking to the sea to find her real “home”; on other days, she yearns to fly on the wings of the albatross, a parallel existence that is indicative of her split personality. Can one live two lives successfully? Is it possible to live as Amit’s wife and also as the wife of her elusive dream-lover? One wonders if the author should help her to come out of the trap and lead a normal life.
Filtered almost exclusively through Manisha’s muddled consciousness, Elixir ushers the reader through some of the most turbulent regions of the ill-fated and obsessed heroine’s mind. On the one hand, the novel is a tale of self-berating; on the other, it is the story of boisterous and vibrant love and madness. Manisha’s fears, insecurities and craving for love are so intense that they remain palpable all through. Docile and quiet Manisha has had enough of nagging; a time comes when her sub-conscious rebels and tells her that she needs no validation from others; that she is complete in herself. But by this time it is too late for Manisha to take her life in her hands; she lets it slide, and like sand running out of her fist, life runs out.
Somehow, the predictable ending of Elixir gives a sense of finality without the possibility of retrieval. Prior to that, the story starts losing its tightness when the prosaic discussion between Manisha and the psychiatrist erodes the mystery. The theme of women walking out of their mundane existence is not new to literature. Novelists like Kate Chopin, whose Edna Pontellier walks into the sea leaving a “happy” (?) home behind; D. H. Lawrence’s protagonist in the long story The Woman Who Rode Away rides into the Indian settlement without knowing why; Anita Desai’s Sita in Where Shall We Go this Summer, a disgruntled wife, goes to Manori Island never to return but the author does not allow her to take any rash step. The charm and mystery of these novels lie in their open endings that sustain readers’ curiosity.
Sinjini Sengupta’s strong point is her ability to handle language expertly. Expressions are smooth and vivid. Graphic, descriptive passages enhance the appeal of the work; there are some passages to which one would like to return to savour their flavour. However, at times the pace slows down and the language becomes repetitive.
In short, Elixir is a fascinating story of inner fantasy – a story where dream and reality ram into each other and produce an evocative world of the unanswered aspects of life. The production is of good quality with a simple but effective cover design, quality paper and printing. Grammatical and printing errors are some of the avoidable irritants that could have been rectified with rigorous editing and re-reading. On the whole, the novel makes a good read but that is all about it. It is not a “spiritual quest” as some critics would have it; Manisha has no spiritual inclinations; she is an unfulfilled woman totally immersed in physical gratification.
Dr Usha Bande is Retired Principal and Former Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla