Reviewed by Neera Kashyap
Title: The Angel’s Beauty Spots
Author: K.R. Meera
Translator: J. Devika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2019
Starting her career as a journalist with Malayala Manorma, K.R.Meera went onto become a prolific and acclaimed Malayalam writer of short story collections, novellas, novels and children’s books. Her very first collection of short stories, Ormayude Njarampu (2002) won several regional awards. Her magnum opus and most famous novel, Aarachaar (Hangwoman) was translated into English by J. Devika in 2014. It won the prestigious Odakkuzhal Prize in 2013, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2014, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015 and was shortlisted for the DSC prize for South Asian literature in 2016. J. Devika once again is Meera’s translator of The Angel’s Beauty Spots. A writer, translator and feminist, she is a teacher and researcher at the Centre of Development Studies in Kerala.
The book comprises three novellas through which the book’s jacket says, “K.R. Meera explores the tragedy, betrayal and violence that arise out of the dark heart of love.” The first novella, The Angel’s Beauty Spots begins with Angela’s murder at the hands of her estranged ex-husband in full gaze of her two young daughters, the older one from him and the younger from a married ex-lover. Driven by a blind love, she had married this man only to discover the evil in him — when he pimps her to his friend in their own house. That their older daughter is privy to this, makes Angela feel that something has died within her.
Her Phoenix-like re-emergence makes her interestingly different from Meera’s other protagonists. While all suffer intense violence, obsession and rage, Angela becomes detached after the incident, as if the old Angela had died. The Angela re-born is a professional receptionist, pragmatic, detached, cheerful and dedicated to her daughters with a drive to provide for their needs, even if this means selling herself. For she knows what she is doing: not just earning extra money but giving empathy as well, men come to her more out of a need for love than for sex. Her pragmatic detachment comes from her relationship with Narendran — a married man and father to her younger child — who loves her but, saddled with responsibilities, is in no financial position to claim his daughter and her as his own.
The strength of the novella lies in the tragic impact of Angela’s death on her daughters – hope deluded for one, the danger of history repeating itself for the other. The weakness lies structurally in the motive for the murder. The momentary impulse of envy of her home’s radiance is insufficient reason for a man, even an evil man, to murder his ex-wife with whom he has had no connection for four or five years. Fiction works best when its roots are strong.
In the second novella, And Forgetting the Tree, I…, there are the two powerful themes of rape and madness. The two are linked. Radhika’s rape in childhood is linked to her father’s subsequent madness. In her marriage to Ajith there is the sexual aggression of a man who is unloved, unloving, fault finding and friendless – “A love that wanted the shade and the fruit. But did not allow roots and branches to grow.” It is her quest for love that takes her through the full spectrum of her student-lover Christy’s violent mood swings which include both tenderness and rape. First, as a stranger, he rapes her in a lodge, then loves her tenderly as a fellow law student. From a sense of wonder that she had conceived his child, he swings to beating her mercilessly before raping her again, explicitly intending her to lose the baby. After a hiatus of 16 years, Christy’s return to her life and his progressive madness are brilliantly explored. Even when his madness becomes amply clear, it is difficult for Radhika to resist him. The key lies in her own assertion: “No. This is not madness, Christy, this is passion. Love’s passion. Love is a strange tree indeed. Explodes, roots and all, when in full bloom. Bears fruit, even if it looks dry and desiccated.”
Like Madhav in Meera’s earlier novel, Poison of Love, Christy too is a compelling Krishna — in love with love itself. Unlike Madhav’s wife,Tulsi, who puts up with his multiple affairs till there is no way out but through hapless destruction, Radhika is magnetised by her own need for love. Despite being a practicing lawyer, she refuses to see that love cannot be given by men who are either mad or stunted in emotion. The metaphor Meera uses for rape is the axe. The novella is replete with images of the tree to convey life, rottenness and death. A prophetic comparison lies in the sentence: “Naturally, the tree fell. For some time, it lay flat on its back, dead, unmoving, on life’s pathway like an unidentified corpse on the road, its rotting core and the stark nakedness of its roots shamelessly exposed.”
In the third novella, The Deepest Blue, Meera uses a verdant and magical landscape to portray the theme of a love that stretches over lifetimes in a search that is an end in itself. Deeply embedded in atmosphere, there is a traditional house – a naalukettu – its first sight triggering a yearning in Geeta for a forbidden but irresistible love for she is married and a mother of two. There are the bounties of jasmine and parijaatam, kilichundan mango trees, kaitha bushes in bloom, paddy fields and serpent groves, springs and the river and a fragrance of it all that wafts on the breeze. The lover who lives in the naalukettu is an ascetic, a devotee of the goddess Tripurasundari. He has forgotten her in his devotion to the goddess. The novella is Geeta’s yearning for him and her attempt to revive his memory of many lifetimes. The ascetic is very attractively portrayed as is his conflict between devotion and human love. The metaphor here is the snake – sometimes tiny and newly hatched, sometimes huge and hooded, sometimes mythical like the one Krishna killed — Kaliya – but always sliding, writhing through many lives.
In an article written by Elizabeth Kuruvilla in Livemint (March 3, 2017), Mini Krishnan, Editor of the Oxford novella series under which And Forgetting the Tree, I… was earlier translated and published says, “She (Meera) is able to transfer emotions from brain blood to paper print almost without dilution. I often wonder how much more intense her thoughts must have been before that first translature. The unique thing is that she is unafraid to go to the end of her thoughts and this she does with complete integrity.”
Devika’s translation captures the depth and range of the book’s emotion and metaphor. In the abovementioned article she says, “Meera is like a young painter making sketches. Some figures may appear again and again – the wronged wife, the heartless man – creating a unique impression.” Then there is Meera’s trauma of writing and the reader’s trauma of reading her. One can’t help feeling that the trauma could be reduced, not merely through metaphor but through more ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ so that, in and through the quietness, we get more subtlety and restraint.
— Neera Kashyap has worked on social communications, specifically health and environment. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co., 2003) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays, story/book reviews and creative non-fiction, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Asian journals which include Kitaab, Papercuts, Mad in Asia Pacific, Out of Print Magazine and Blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, Muse India, Indian Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Verse of Silence, Erothanatos and Indian Literature. She lives in Delhi.
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