On assignment, she now encounters Suraj, a troubled photographer she has hired. He too is poised at the brink, escaping the disaster of his failed marriage and the divorce papers that await him at home. The ‘brown shrimp’ with her braided, beaded hair and tattooed belly button, curiously attractive to him, is utterly unlike the blonde Anita Ekberg he conjured up in his mind. But this is no love story.
This is a story with a moral—some of it overbearing, as much as it holds true—about the wounds left by child abuse and sexual violence. It is often the story of Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three elderly Bengali ladies whose clucking frames the action as they wander around the temple town and frown and fret over their little worries. Voicing the central themes of pain, violence and the meaning of religion, they form a sort of domesticated Greek chorus. Vidya is Suraj’s mother—that he is in Jarmuli, unwittingly just a few minutes away from his mother in ironic, saddening proximity, is a risk which works, somehow. It bears out the other large theme of the book: of parents who are close and yet far. Indeed, this holds true for all of the novel’s waifs: Nomi, Suraj and Badal, an orphaned guide unhappily grown up.
Badal’s is the third narrative in the book; his uncle works him for his salary in the absence of parents, and he has an unhealthy—and unrequited—fascination for dimpled Raghu, a young boy who works at a tea shop by the shore. He is the one who dreams ‘of living on Jupiter and sleeping under its moons’ as his escape. The obvious message, of course, is that the predator is also often the prey, and the level of ambiguity this achieves sets this story apart to some extent.
Only the white-haired godman, a thoroughly creepy entity, is left absolutely evil, through the flashback passages that describe his travesties—and the present-day terrors of his malevolent stare, when he returns, standing in the sea, at one point cupping Raghu’s bottom. Badal adds a layer of nuance, yet he muddies these waters in a way that leaves us with more loose ends. For, the jittery violence of the novel’s young people throws its pace, not quite adding up; the ambitions of this taut, carefully structured book (the sections are broken into five days, then jump to the 18th) are threatened, as one act of violence and perversion piles atop another.
Yet, despite the predictable rendering of sexual abuse, this is a sombre, serene tale worth reading, full of elegant stalling. An award-winning novelist, journalist and editor, Roy has been compared to Anita Brookner (Biblio), and the lyrical voice of her acclaimed debut An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008) and The Folded Earth (2011) is acute here, too. She is the true successor of another Anita, Anita Desai, when she meditates on life’s ironies. Thus, her three sexagenarians win out over the more showy drama of Nomi: losing each other, squabbling over old histories and even downing a peg of Smirnoff under the disbelieving eyes of the town’s idlers. Particularly endearing is dreamy Gouri, spiritual and seemingly approaching dementia, humming bhajans even as the vulgar messages of the modern world slide past her train window, in one hilarious montage: ‘HARD IN A MINUTE, PLEASURE FOR HOURS’. And there is a beautiful, unflinching moment when two of the trio laugh on the beach: ‘Looking at Gouri smiling, Latika thought their freedom from care was no more than a pause in time, a postponement of the inevitable even as the predator inside Gouri’s mind rested, gathering strength, never letting her out of sight.’
Several big books have taken on the vulnerability of children of late, including Toni Morrison’s God Held the Child, but only a few have managed to elude the usual traps of sanctimony and sentimentality, particularly Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. This is difficult terrain. One wishes this skilled author had favoured the subtler truths of her true heroines, weathering the sunset of their lives—but there are, ultimately, two books jostling within this one frame, unable to come together even when they do physically, on the shore.