Tale of two woeful worlds
Shalini Rawat

by Saikat Majumdar. HarperCollins. Pages 293. Rs 295.

The twin-stories of the novel encompass the history of an old schoolteacher in the present-day Calcutta and of a widow living possibly a century or more ago. The amateur writer-cum-teacher struggles to get his exasperatingly slow pension files moving in an archaic bureaucratic set-up that cannot be moved both literally and figuratively.

In another age gone by, a widow’s memoirs recount her ‘pointless’ ordeal of surviving from one day to the next, in an era where sati has been banned but widow remarriages have not yet been accepted. Her family therefore responds to the situation by erasing all signs of her presence, making her a head-shaven spectre dressed in white who haunts the corridors of the massive family mansion.

One cannot help but notice the duels between silence and voice, between visibility and erasure, between expression and frowning upon (in case of the widow by the joint family and its customs) and the drowning out (in case of the schoolteacher by Communist speeches/parades/ideology mediators) all along. Funnily enough, all this is done by those supposed to protect and nurture the two individuals, tearing down many revered institutions of society in the process like marriage, family, bureaucracy and the government which is supposed to be of, for and by the people.

The story is of individuals struggling for a voice in cultures that frown upon or actively disempower them by ignoring them, making them invisible; the rich, young woman silenced in the private sphere, the poor old man in the public sphere.

The quintessential search for expression, then, is what spurs the widow-teacher (-author?) to write, to name the unnamable, to speak that which is forbidden, to put down in words their angst for all to see. They all know, the author-teacher-widow, that these words might get lost, fade away on yellow brittle sheets unseen, unshared, but they know in their hearts that they have spoken. And that is all.

They know that to have spoken is to have begun. To have spoken is to have won. The author too, therefore, plants his words in nooks, behind fanciful descriptions of the young bride’s jewellery and clothes and wet hair and innocent looks, words describing her long nights of waiting for her lord who flits from one concubine to the next, words that shirk, withdraw at the sight of the ghost of her former self when she is widowed. And also words that populate Milan babu, the old schoolteacher’s world. "Words. He had only words to rely on, and his rusty limbs, their aching motions, the infectious power of his beliefs, his sickening enthusiasm, great airy arcs drawn by his bony, vein-straddled hands that spoke along. One had to speak at Naran’s tea stalls, through the long evenings, to the weary regulars, retired employees of The Calcutta Gazette. Standing inside the crowded bus, one could turn one’s head around and speak to the crushed, sweating fellow passenger about the miracle of the faded words on powdery dust."

With the archetypal cinematic imagery of Satyajit Ray and the rich semantic legacy of Bankim Chandra, the novel feels like ‘reading a movie’—an effect that is at once both graphic and evocative. This Stanford academic has combined the lyricism of Bangla, the author’s mother tongue and the discipline of English, his ‘father tongue’ to produce a powerful debut.