How My Mother’s Lover by Sumana Roy shows ‘We pine for what is not’


Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

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Title: My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories

 Author: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Bloomsbury India, 2019

Sumana Roy’s book How I Became a Tree, published in 2017, was shortlisted for the Sahitya Academy Award (Non-fiction) for the year 2019. Her novel Missing was published in 2018 and poetry collection Out of Syllabus in March 2019. My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of fourteen stories, is her fourth published work.

The blurb of the book describes this collection as stories about people suffering from curious ailments. Interestingly, the book starts with this quote by Roland Barthes:

‘I have a disease; I see language.’

This makes it seem as if the author at the start of the collection confides to the reader her own ailment. Perhaps her observations and thoughts translate into words compulsively and take the form of language. Perhaps it is the inevitable metamorphosis of images, definite and indefinite, into words in her mind, which eventually shapes into stories, essays and poems. Through these stories, she seems to contemplate ordinary people’s peculiar ailments, which do not draw much consideration in the conundrum of conventional continuance.

In the first story “Blind Water”, a woman frantically searches for a drop of water as it has disappeared from her city. Ironically, while searching, she does find it — in her sweat, her tears, in the fog, among the trees and in the ice on the mountaintop — but she can’t find it in the usual places where water should have been, like in the tap of her house or in the city lake. It is as if the water has turned blind and taken a route other than its due course. Her desperation results in a kind of paranoia and she succumbs to the unyielding voice in her head. Dystopian in nature, the story paints a picture of a bleak world suffering in the aftermath of an environmental crisis.

“My Mother’s Head” is a story about loneliness and illness of a woman, the inability and even reluctance of her family to notice it, which eventually becomes the cause of her depression and forgetfulness. This story is also about a daughter taking her mother for granted and about how it is only when she realises the severity of her illness and suffers herself that she understands her mother’s pain. The story startles the reader for very subtly putting across the callousness with which we humans sometimes treat our relationships, perhaps because some of the relations like that of parents and children is pre-defined.

“The New Provincials” is a story of a college lecturer who, hailing from a small town, is desperate to become famous. The story quite rightly points to the grim reality of the infatuation of people with social media in everyday life– a disease that has afflicted even the provinces now. It portrays the obsession of the protagonist to become famous overnight, to steal a moment or two of fame in a world driven by the fancy of getting thousands of “likes” on Facebook or Instagram. One day he does become famous. But is it the kind of fame he wished for?

These narratives focus on the lackadaisical attitude of people towards relationships they take for granted. They draw attention to the consequences that carelessness or insensitivity can cause and at times also pose a mirror to the self-imposed anxieties in a world marred by self-obsession. But perhaps more importantly, these also compel the reader to turn their gaze inward and search for those moments of capriciousness which can invade and erode their lives too.

In the story “Close Reading”, reading of the poem “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert in a literature class turns into a closer reading of relationships. Here a teacher drifts to examining her own life while reading a poem in class; a student while reading the same poem tries to understand her parents’ relationship and eventually the story itself turns into a close reading of teacher-students dynamic in a classroom for the reader.

“We pine for what is not. That is the code of reading – we seek in literature what life will not give us.”

The title also seems to be an ironical allusion to “Close reading” as advocated by I.A Richards in “Practical Criticism”, for rather than reading a poem for what it is, it becomes an exercise in understanding relationships in life. 

“On the Brink” is a story of a woman afflicted by life. While on the verge of committing suicide, in a distant country amid strangers, she is overpowered by anxiety and fails to get rid of her ailment. Though suicide seems the only escape to her, the abundance of life around her overwhelms her too much to give in. In “I’m Not Sure”, a woman is seized by the desire to collect human teeth. But it is more a story about a country’s obsession with its history; an obsession that makes history its fourth dimension and where the vertices of guilt and memory and tourism seem to surround the reader.

The title story, “My Mother’s Lover”, has at its heart a mother’s secret, which becomes the cause of anguish for her daughters when it is revealed to them. But perhaps what startles them most is that she had a life other than her family life, a life where she wasn’t their mother but a poet, a life where she was perhaps happier than she was with them, a life lived in fascination of things foible and disparate. This story has probably been picked as the title story of collection because it remarkably renders the idea of peculiar being shrouded in the most familiar; of things hidden to the plain sight because we are either too busy or outright ignorant to care much – a theme that is repeated in many of her stories..

Other stories in this collection include “Untouchability”, “The Mountain Disease”, “The Seventh Day”, “Literature and Other Ailments”, “Sleep, How Are You?” and “Beside the Madman’s House”. These stories have, at their centre, characters suffering from peculiar ailments, the roots of which sometimes lie hidden in the ordinariness of day-to-day life, in the negligence of human relationships, in the fear of known as well as unknown, in the apathy towards nature and people or in chasing a life of vainglory.

Roy’s writing, lucid in portrayal, is sprinkled with lovely poesy. Her stories, while echoing life mired in peripatetic human mores, offer no solace. But then she writes from a place of inquisitiveness, a curiousness to understand as well as to interpret the images of afflictions not noticeable or deliberately ignored. Immersed in existential pathos and impelled by forces inconspicuous, her characters drift helplessly. Their maladies, at times unwilled and at times self-imposed, stem from apprehensions both new-fangled and perennial. These stories thus, are appropriate chronicles of the times we live in.

 

Rakhi Dalal teaches Textile Design to undergraduates at a University. She is an avid reader and book reviewer. Her reviews can be found at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/

 

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