Monday, November 24, 2008

Girl, Interrupted

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


The nationalistic fervour that preceded India’s partition isn’t a subject that one encounters often in English Indian fiction. R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma is, in fact, about the only title that comes readily to mind -- Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan dwelled more on the trauma of Partition itself. Now, there’s Bangalore-based Usha K.R.’s third novel, A Girl and a River, mainly set in a town in the princely state of Mysore in the 1930s, in which the actions and principles of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose have a central influence on her characters.

This is a twin-track narrative that moves back and forth between the past and the near-present, in which the events of half a century ago and their impact on a single family are sought to be unravelled and understood. The girl of the title, and the river after which she is named, is Kaveri, daughter of Mylariah, the town’s lawyer, landowner and municipal councillor. Others who are a part of Kaveri’s growing years include her brother Setu and mother Rukmini.

The national cross-currents of that era as reflected in Kaveri’s town -- heady nationalism, incipient rebellion and conservative Anglophilia -- are brought to life through period detail, with an accent on the music, movies and books of the time. However, the author falls into the standard trap when it comes to historical fiction: there are excessive amounts of dialogue and exposition simply to establish context.

In time, Kaveri comes under the spell of Shyam, a well-meaning but reckless young rabble-rouser, and it is this attachment, along with the reactions of those close to the couple, that will lead to tragic consequences. The reverberations will be felt by Setu’s daughter, the unnamed narrator of the second tale set in the late 1980s, who attempts to find reasons for her parents’ joylessness and occasionally curious behaviour.

Though the prose throughout is more efficient than evocative, the author does ample justice to Kaveri’s character as she transforms from a bookish and impressionable young girl to a headstrong teenager. Also effective is the portrayal of the restrictions faced and courage displayed by the other two main female characters, Kaveri’s mother Rukmini, and the narrator in the present time. The men, however, fare less well; in particular, Setu’s animosity to Shyam isn’t ever fully explained.

More problematic is the switching between the 1930s and the 1980s, a device resorted to in order to show how past actions create ripples that spread through the decades. Quite simply, the predicament of Setu’s daughter, however well-portrayed, has much less impact than the events of Kaveri’s life. It thus emerges as no more than a frame, one that ought to have been more slender and less decorative.

Despite these weaknesses, A Girl and a River is a novel of scope and vitality. Its treatment of a fractious time in India’s past and the effects of the period on the central characters display a sensitivity and seriousness that’s more than occasionally pleasing.

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