'Soft animal' book review: Privilege paradox
A heart-warming novel that captures the dilemmas of young India as it exposes the hypocrisies of the affluent.
The protagonist of Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s Soft Animal is an odd Indian woman—Mallika Rao—stuck in a loveless marriage. Her plight is exacerbated when the Covid lockdown traps her within the four walls of her house with a husband who she doesn’t like anymore.
The author weaves a delightful portrait of an unemployed 30-something South Delhi woman, who suddenly finds herself lying to and hiding from her family. She even keeps her pregnancy a secret from her husband and in-laws. With writing that is intimate, the reader of Soft Animal has the experience of sitting across from the protagonist over a cup of tea as she spills her innermost rumblings. The pregnancy news is
a little secret between the readers and Mallika which, if it comes out, will cost her the agency and any say, whatsoever, in the matter. At times, there is delicious violence in her thoughts, particularly when she has to pretend to care about her marriage or her house.
As she wrestles with the ideas of the impending future, she finds solace in the company of Gudiya, a dog, who she brought over from her parents’ place. Interestingly, it is not the quintessential happy dog that licks the pain away, but a traumatised rescued one, which flinches at the slightest of human contact. It is in the mirroring of the pain and fear that Mallika forges an uncanny bond with the animal.
Soft Animal takes the reader back to the pandemic madness––the hoarding, the obsessive sanitisation, futile attempts to ignore fake news, the chloroquine frenzy, herbal teas and the banging of pots and pans. With the book’s visual prose, it is almost impossible to not get transported to the seemingly endless days and nights that melted into each other as one tried to incorporate more ginger, garlic, basil and giloy tablets into their diet. As is to not recall the defining moments of those two years—from the advent of the necessary alternative in Zoom meetings for work to the sudden inexplicable fascination with cooking, as was evident on social media.
Like most women, Mallika finds herself dealing with household chores all alone in the absence of her domestic help. As Reddy Madhavan shows the protagonist feeling overburdened, she also shines light on the ever-prevalent rich-versus-poor divide that only became starker during the pandemic. The author recalls the eccentricities of the RWAs across Delhi-NCR, which insisted that it was the poor who were the ‘diseased vermin’, putting others at risk, and not the rich who brought the virus from abroad.
The tale lays bare the hypocrisy of the privileged, when it exposes the vile nature of Mallika’s husband and her in-laws. To begin with, they keep their other son, who is autistic, hidden. Even as they talk about how sensitive and inclusive they are about people with ‘disabilities’, in what feels like a Victorian-novelesque cruelty, he is kept locked-up during social gatherings at their home. Even as they vote for right-wing fascist leaders, and keep referring to their daughter-in-law as a ‘south Indian girl’, they continue to attend posh Eid parties and constantly mention how they have friends who are ‘Muslims’.
The book takes its name from (American poet) Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, a poem Mallika comes across while she is on one of her regular visits to Brigadier Rita senior citizen in her housing colony. She seeks comfort in Oliver’s lines, ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves/ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ As she wonders what it is that the ‘soft animal’ of her body loves, she thinks of the man she lives with and how little he understands her.
Delightful and relatable, Reddy Madhavan’s book is a commentary on privilege, class and the idea of womanhood. It captures the reality of many Indian millennials who feel stuck in their lives, as they come to terms with their ever-evolving identities and outlook towards life.