Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book: A Girl And A River by Usha K.R.

" How can you get so immersed in cooked up tales of fictitious people? How can you remove yourself from the real world so easily?" he asked her.

"On the contrary, it is the real world created differently. And people are the same everywhere. The things that happen to them in books, their thoughts, their feelings, everything seems so much more enjoyable and more real too because you are sitting in a chair and reading about them and they are the ones getting wet in the rain and having problems and..." she stopped, for she had been about to say 'falling in love".

"That's escapism..."

" No, it's another way of getting to know the world and yourself".

Thus goes a conversation (on page 213-214) between the hot-headed revolutionary Shyam, and Kaveri, the intelligent, sensitive, spirited heroine of this novel titled A Girl And A River. A novel that beautifully and poignantly captures life in a small town in Mysore during the 1930s and 1940s when the freedom struggle was reaching its crescendo.

There is a distinct charm in the narration of a story when a pair of  lively and curious young siblings are added to the mix. A certain magic is apparent even in the everyday events when viewed through the inquisitive eyes of children. This is something that we experienced earlier in some very successful novels too. Who can forget the antics and travails of Rahel and Estha in The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy? Or the shenanigans of Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Setu and Kaveri form the windows through which we get to view the life of the family of Mylaraiah, a prominent lawyer in the town. While the son Setu, like his father, unquestioningly accepts the British, the daughter Kaveri is influenced by the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to the town and finds it  shameful to accept the foreign rule. Kaveri knows her own mind and in an attempt to chart her own course even defies her father to attend a Quit India march organized by Shyam. Things take a brutal turn when a police firing takes place...

The British rule of the country and the freedom struggle is something that the generations of us born after independence are only vaguely aware of. Our text books also sometimes leave us confused. History is a complex thing. People remember things differently. They remember things based on their own agendas, and forget some things. Eventually, all of it results in a concoction that we accept as our history. Well, we all know that there was the peaceful approach advocated by the Mahatma and the armed route propagated by Subhash Bose. These are historical facts we are all aware of. When the same facts are presented with a context and a setting, like it is done in this novel, we can better appreciate the distinctions between the two approaches.

We know that there were people in our midst who did support the British rule. It is interesting the way Mylaraiah defends the British (on page 37). "I'm happy to be a pillar in a system run by people like Judge Riley," Mylaraih said, "And there's no denying that whatever we have is thanks to them. Think of the chaos there'd be if we allowed our people to run things their way. Every man, right from the diwan to the petty clerk in the government office would be bringing his brother or his son through the back door...We'd endlessly be salaaming worthless people even to get what was due to us."

Again, see this (on page 49-50). "If the many , disparate, tightly wound communities, cocooned in their unchanging ways, suspicious of each other and quick to take offence, were the bones in the spine of the country, the British to Mylaraiah were the gel-filled discs that separated the bones, defining them, giving them space, the ease and the swing they required to live with each other. If the gel were to slip out of place, the body would be prostate and aflame with pain; it was so easy of their dissensions to lose all sense of proportion. People could be strange; the most docile and compliant of them could go berserk if given half a chance".

On the other hand, there was also Shyam, fiercely patriotic and a believer in violent struggle to dislodge the British. This is what he says, in his address to the Mahila Samaja (on page 206-207)- "Our young men are emasculated and our young women, too timid. We have lost the vital spirit of the youth, too fond of our food and drink, our unhampered routines, our clothes and jewellery, our meanigless entertainments, so much so that we want others to rule us, to think for us, to tell us which is our right hand and which is our left...we don't even mind being slaves so long as we are not disturbed from our state of rest."

While these paragraphs bring out the politics of the day, there are also parts in the book that capture the dynamics of the family and relationships of the day. It is interesting how Rukmini, the loyal wife to Mylaraiah, and the caring mother to Kaveri and Setu, reminisces on marriage (on page 63), -    "They were like paper kites in the sky, women, Rukmini thought. How high they flew and how long they stayed up depended on the slack they got from the men who flew them. Sometimes, they might not get off the ground at all."

They are all strong women, - Kaveri, Rukmini, even Rukmini's mother Bhagiratamma. It is interesting what Bhagiratamma thinks about the wickedness of subtle, underhand women like her daughter-in-law, and the culpability of spineless men like her own son (on page 192), - "Better to do wrong, she said, than to do nothing, than to build an anthill of routine around yourself and hope that keeping yourself occupied from morning till night will make the things you didn't want to confront , disappear".

The novel alternates from the 1930s to 1980s. While the story starts unfolding in the 1930s, it is in the 1980s that Setu's daughter(who is also Kaveri's grand-daughter) tries to unravel some of the circumstances of the past in her family. She finds two books and a letter in a tea tin in the attic which finally lead her to some details about Kaveri.

A Girl And A River is a story that a lot of folks, especially us from the old Mysore region could, in a lot of ways, identify with. Many of the words and expressions in Kannada that are used in this novel bring to mind an old world that is fast fading into oblivion. The characters in the novel are sure to stay etched in our mind. Most of all, Kaveri, who inspite of her great spirit, and an indomitable verve becomes a double victim of the crossfires of the freedom stuggle and the social mores of the times. Another tragic figure, like the unforgettable Thomas Hardy character Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

A preview of A River And A Girl is available at-

1 comment:

Girish B Hukkeri said...

Srinath captures the essence of the story ... and makes us to yearn for more! Thanks. Looking forward for some more!