'C: A novel' book review: Chasing the ever-elusive amour

Prose and poetry blend in this debut novel about a writer’s relationship with people and places.

Published: 04th September 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2022 12:32 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

This is the story of how a literally benighted city got back its sun. Of course, Anupama Raju in her debut novel does not keep it either that short or simple. We see it through the eyes of her protagonist who unburdens her tale of woe, neurosis and angst that spans two homonymous cities that are eponymous of the novel as well, and a time frame of several centuries held together by skeins of poetry––the latter versified form vying for space with the sections occupied by the prose narrative.

Actually, there are two voices here––the dominant one of the troubled female narrator, and the second of the city, C, which had never seen the sun for centuries, but where trees and gardens luxuriate, nonetheless, and which act as a sanctuary for distraught souls. Its sunny counterpart is the other C, which is the home town of the unnamed narrator. The latter is characterised from the beginning as a “writer”, no ordinary soul, armed as she is, with her laptop and she shrinks.

There are other characters too––the narrator’s anonymous lover with whom she is besotted to the point of jettisoning her self-esteem, integrity and sanity, and last but certainly not the least, Alice, the phantom visible to none but the narrator, who is visiting C while on a writing sabbatical. Both the darkling city, C, and the spectral Alice have been waiting for centuries for the narrator to arrive, and, so to speak, liberate them from the trammels of the past, a la Ram and Ahalya.

Aeons earlier, Alice in her mortal life was a restless spirit who gave short shrift to conventions and, leaving her husband behind, set sail with a band of unknown traders for a strange land which turns out to be the sunny C to which the narrator belonged. Here she meets the love of her life, a sensuous man with a “towering presence”. In Alice’s words, he sounds like a superhero out of a Marvel comic: “She couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders, carved muscles, and grand chest.” Of course, being ignorant of each other’s language, they cannot hold conversations, but she “relished the perfect sound of his words”, and having been brought up on a bland diet of presumably the West, he introduced Alice “to new tastes, to sour and pungent spices that set her tongue on fire yet made her more alive than ever”.

But can such a paradisal life last long? Anyone who is familiar with Abhighyan Shakuntalam and countless Indian films with the pardesi playing a pivotal role would know it can’t. Such lovers are fated to part. And even in our progressive times, it is the woman who is the victim as the lover plays truant, although Alice is the pardesi here. In a reversal of the “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” situation, it is Alice who is “alone and palely loitering”, although her lover had left behind “in language strange” manuscripts that were indecipherable to her, but which she had correctly guessed to be amatory verse. Centuries later, the narrator is able to figure out that the script is Tamil of which her knowledge was severely limited. Soon the two soul sisters turn lovers and they are in each other’s arms. But even this does not last. Alice evaporates into thin air and all that is left are memories.

Raju’s evocation of life in the sunless C is somewhat vague, contrived and desultory. Although readers drop by the grocery store, gardens and even eateries and jam sessions, it all turns into a vague, unreal, poetic mishmash, a potpourri of elements borrowed randomly from various campus cities of the West. The narrator is a global citizen and her cultural identity is not confined to any region. Neither her food habits or attire nor her terms of reference betray her ethnicity. Raju may have won encomiums from celebrity authors, but her verse often turns into a welter of words. She is far more convincing in the snatches when she describes her childhood and youth. She is on familiar ground.


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