Vibrant and Dusty- A Book Review of Bhaunri: A Novel and Daura: Excerpts from the Confidential Report on the Collector of a district in Rajasthan by Pallavi Narayan
The covers of Bhaunri and Daura, with the silhouette of a tribal girl on the former and a tree with roots and flowering branches on the latter, are inviting. The earthy colours of claret and mustard on both bring to mind the rolling deserts of Rajasthan, which is where the narratives are based. Indeed, the descriptions of rural living are minute and bring the reader right into the homes of the characters in Bhaunri, and into the tehsildar’s bungalow in Daura. While the novels are not intertwined, they speak to each other, taking the reader through the timeless vistas of Rajasthan and then plunging into a roiling mass of emotions.
Flashes of iridescent colour, the swish of lehengas, the sweat of day-to-day living, the thirst that the desert induces in the subconscious take due precedence in the rendering of the characters. The portrayal of the landscapes is bound into quiet, controlled prose. Mystical experiences are brought alive by a lone flute amongst the dunes swaying with camels in its sway; a smattering of kohl that transforms beckoning eyes into that of a jadugarni, a female magician. Seemingly everyday occurrences are granted significance in the wee hours between day and night. The fineness of the prose is undercut by the intensity that the female protagonists bring to the novels.
Picking up Bhaunri first, I did not quite know what to expect. Intrigued by the seemingly easy-to-read lines, I found the novel to be intense and markedly disturbing, but perhaps that was the author’s intention. The young girl protagonist Bhaunri, of the desert clan of the Gadolia Lohars, is married off to Bheema, whom she barely knows but is powerfully attracted towards.
“Lohars did not mind daughters. In fact, daughters were welcome. They worked at the family forge and fetched a good bride-price at the time of marriage” (p. 4).
Bhaunri’s mother, an adventurous figure herself, adamantly refuses to set a bride price for her daughter, with the result that the child grows up knowing her own mind, and takes measures to secure her husband’s affection to her.
However, after ensuring that she is bound to him emotionally and physically, Bheema is shown to be a philanderer. The underlying sense is of danger and all precaution thrown to the winds as Bhaunri shares a moment with a father-in-law that could have proven fatal for all relationships involved. He, however, a Lothario as well as an alcoholic, is converted to her biggest champion, and this is where I found the story to turn complex and nuanced. While the narrative seems as tightly bound like the corsets of the women are, the ending leaves open strands. What is admirable in its context is a locksmith’s daughter’s outspokenness:
“Don’t talk to me of shame, Mai. My mother taught me about the marriage of hearts, without which any union is shameful. But what did you teach your son? Did you not teach him the shame of lying with every dirty prostitute? Did you not teach him the shame of breaking his wife’s heart? My shame comes to me from him. It grows more piercing every day” (p. 133).
Moving on to Daura, the cloistered intimacy that cosseted family connections generate in the previous novel give way to a more open, on-the-road kind of energy. For not only is the tehsildar or district collector moving from one dak bangla to the next, so is his orderly, and each character in turn is given space as the narrator. Again, the author’s particular attention to the niceties of government bungalow and office life is prominent, drawing the reader into the ambience:
“Though there are new electric fans in the rooms, there are no coolers and the veranda still has an old, tattered, hand-pulled fan. The broiling heat of the day would make this place as hot as a griddle on a mud chulha if I didn’t keep the staff here on their toes and make them spray water on the reed- blinds four times a day” (p. 5).
This Collector Saheb is a different breed from the usual government official. Not only does “Saheb enjoys this kind of food. He likes the thick bajra or jowar rotis, slow-cooked on wood and cowpat fire, buttermilk, palm jaggery – the sort of things people from the headquarters complain about” (pp. 7–8), he involves himself in village life by having the nomadic residents of the desert visit the bangla in the evenings to sing and dance in the local style. He himself plays the flute to amuse them. The sarangiya or sarangi player who accompanies the camels in the never-ending swaying movement through the sands, comes equipped with plenty of tales to while a thirsty, mosquito-laden evening away. The chapter-by-chapter shift in narrator was interesting, if a little disconcerting, in the progression of the story.
Anukrti Upadhyay breathes life into the interiors of Rajasthan in the manner of a local, which is what she is. Born and brought up in Jaipur, she has patiently carved for the reader two refined renderings that could be read as companion pieces. The world she has created seems to ring gently with its camel bells in the distance, awaiting the reader’s graceful advent into it.
Pallavi Narayan holds a doctorate in literature and has worked with universities and publishing houses in Singapore/India. She is Fiction Editor (Asia) with Kitaab.