RANBIR SIDHU lives in Athens. This is his sixth book. At its heart is the question of how to die. An old woman is silently talking to herself, waiting to die. She was married in London, lived for some time in California, and has returned with her husband to his ancestral home in Punjab because he wishes to die in the room he was born in. He has rebuilt and demolished and rebuilt the house, each time bigger. ‘You need a lot of room to die in, my husband. All I need is a corner of the room,’ she muses. Their sons live in different countries. Her sister’s daughter lost her mind in the days of militancy, was married off, before she ‘learnt to die’.
The book is the story she tells herself in her loneliness. She was always an outsider in a world of men and power, working, fatefully, as ‘a seamstress making puppets’. As her past unspools as a montage, reality as habit knows it begins to melt, disclosing its fault lines. Memory and oblivion begin to change places. Incertitude yields insight. And the book contemplates itself as if in a mirror, tearing down the twin edifices of truth and lies and probing fiction as ‘a lie that tells the truth but also hides it’. Such fiction comes from maternal space, from the mother speaking in the marrow of the writer-son’s soul. The woman wishes that her son, who is a writer, would write her story.
Her story spans history, too, from Partition to the farmers’ protest, in which as a chronicler she takes political positions to denounce the politics of divisions, identities and hatred. She identifies this politics with men’s ways which turn mirrors into borders and brothers into adversaries. The test of a leader’s humanity, she says, is whether he knows how to die. Dictators do not. If they did, they would not impose their blind will on the world. For, the secret of dying is ‘learning that they do not die, because they were never born, that if no life begins, but just is, then no life can end, it just is, always and forever’. She thus places the time of history upon time as a process of never-ending metamorphoses: ‘time is not a thing that starts in one place and ends in another… time simply is, or maybe is not.’ Who told her this? The man with the long scarf who travels between planets. She does not ‘know’ he is the Superman of the comics visiting her delirious mind. Just as she does not know she is an alt-historian: ‘history is not written by the winners but by those who forget.’ Probably because they alone deeply remember.
A glorious craving tugs at her heart. If that is what time is, anything might be undone. She would ‘walk back across the mirror’ and see what had happened ‘unhappen’. Women ‘unraped’, men ‘unburned’, throats ‘unslit’. Several ghosts stroll across the pages of this strangely beautiful novella: of Shakespeare, Poe, Carroll, de Beauvoir, Woolf, Hrabal, Baudrillard, the sage Vasishtha. It is a dark voyage into the abyss of consciousness lit with images becoming metaphors working as guideposts: crows, mirrors, stars, sky, ceiling, crabs, TV, and holes. Relationships unfold, evolve, but do not resolve. Hatred for the husband brushes against love and is briefly touched by empathy. The form of the narrative softly changes as the story advances in loops. The soliloquy rides over distant times and places sometimes with only commas over whole pages, sometimes under a downpour of periods. The last section, of 12 pages, has just one period.
Sidhu’s short and profound book shows how far English can be taken to tell a largely non-native story. It is a woman’s book written by a man, a mother’s by a son. For Indian writing in English, it is a huge leap.
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