âTell me a story, Matangi-Ma. “
She did not answer. She wanted to hear him repeat it, and he did so, in an insistent, childlike, singing voice that evoked telling stories and the need to tell them.
âTell me a story, Matangi-Ma. “
She came back to the old story that she had told and re-told, for so many years, to so many generations of children and grandchildren.
In Namita Gokhale’s new masterful work The blind matriarch, the first Indian pandemic novel I’ve read so far, most of the action is confined to a house in South Delhi.
This trope is relevant three times.
Most of us have spent the past couple of years almost entirely at home (i.e. those of us fortunate enough to have homes), and we instantly understand the dimensions of this withdrawal. . As the extended family, locked in situ, grapple with crisis and with each other, the premise of oneness of place provides the kind of contained dramatic depth that only a highly accomplished novelist like Gokhale can navigate. And finally, the blindness of the eponymous matriarch, who has held her for several decades in the family home, allows the house to become a portal to other times, other seasons, in a deeply organic way, allowing the theme to the second show that permeates the novel to gently blossom.
House number 100, in Block C of what could be one of South Delhi’s leafy settlements, was designed by an architect trained by the famous Lawrence Wilfred Baker, and “imitated his distinctive style”.
Here Matangi-Ma, the blind matriarch, occupies the top floor, cared for by her competent maid, Lali. One floor down, his youngest son Satish lives with his wife Ritika and their nine-year-old son Rahul, the boy Matangi can never say no to.
The lower floor is the home of Matangi’s beloved firstborn, Suryaveer, who lives with his adopted son Sameer, now in college, and their dog Dollar. In the words of her sister, Shanta, a downstairs resident, Surya, like many other intellectuals of our time, has traversed the continuum from “left engagement” to “obscuring the right”, via Marxist-Leninist ideology, vegetarianism, Gandhian thought and anarchy, veering from âconviction to conviction in a sequence of apparently reasoned responsesâ. Surya and Sameer’s home is a world apart from Satish and Ritika’s. But the pandemic brings them to a truth that neither has faced all these years.
Shanta, on the other hand, is single, sensitive, and socially aware. She balances her NGO work by looking after her cat Trump and playing the goddess Annapurna to the whole clan, sending personalized gifts to each floor with the help of Munni, her maid. If her manic quarantine cooking – gujiyas baked with organic flour and suji and covered in silver virk – reveals deep loneliness, Shanta is self-aware enough to recognize it.
With the exception of the most radical readers, who completely reject verisimilitude, most of us who love the novel invariably look to him for his likeness. I do not mean to say that the art of the novelist is imitative, quite the contrary. We cannot all admit it; but the pleasure of a well-told story comes from the fact, admittedly counter-intuitive, that it is, in fact, the perfect substitute for life upside down, which is messy, and therefore impossible to tell (or to live well”. It’s the internal logic that flows through the pages of a novel that teaches us to impose narrative logic on the hustle and bustle of life, that thing that we essentially experience in shreds and pieces of a puzzle. All that to say: the pandemic is still unfolding, and we are still dealing – individually, socially, globally, economically, philosophically – with the debris left in the wake of the surges. While extraordinary reporting from around the world has kept us informed, it is to fiction that we must turn to make sense.
But even in this space The blind matriarch is a rare book. When we readers voluntarily suspend our disbelief and step into a fictitious space, we do not entirely forget where our pleasure comes from. You wonder from time to time: “Oh, is that an autobiographical element in the author’s life?” At that point, we dismantle our own illusion by emphasizing the fictitiousness of it all – writers borrow from their own lives, even when they make up the rest. Somehow, when I started reading Matriarch, all of the conscious meta-questions I was trained to ask completely popped out of my head and I got involved in the world of the novel. in a way I haven’t had in a long time. It was almost as if The Blind Matriarch had arrived in this fully formed world, its lamentable phrases and insightful characterization all secondary to the author’s unique strength. purpose: telling stories and the need for them to be told.
(Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based author, most recently of Friends of the College.)