An imagined memory, effervescence unlocked, makes for a happy picture. Imagine, a very Tamilian woman, in her sixties, wearing a bright yellow nine-yard silk sari stopping to gape at a breakdancer in Times Square New York of the 1980s. Freshly widowed and freed of the bondage of domestication, she is on a solo trip, to get herself a slice of a world that is alien to her. “My grandmother wanted to borrow the breakdancer’s ease, his suppleness, his sheer riverine exuberance. Emboldened, she marched forward, tapped him and whispered, ‘Hello’. Asked, ‘How is it done?’ The breakdancer, his body twinkling with sweat, drew out an arm, reached for my grandmother. His fingers locked in hers, he put one foot forward, then another, skipped lightly, and took Amamma along.” The image of Deeya’s grandmother matching step with a breakdancer is one of the most enduring visuals of Dharini Bhaskar’s delightful debut, These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light.
Her book takes the reader along on a journey that meshes the multiple stories of a family across three generations in mellifluous prose. That it has made it to the shortlist of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 does not come as a surprise. It is a worthy contender. By her own admission, poetry is Bhaskar’s first love, and this here is a “poet’s novel”, a befitting epithet. These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light borrows for its title a line from American poet Richard Siken’s poem Scheherazade. Much like Scheherazade whose half-told stories each night in the One Thousand and One Nights earn her reprieve, the women of Deeya’s family must seek completion of their narratives as imagined by her, through alternating stories.
Bhaskar picks up an expansive truth as a strong central motif: that while we are a mosaic of the bits of people who came before us, our mothers, grandmothers and an entire tribe, whose truths and narratives get subconsciously bequeathed to us, we are also the coalescence of genomes, the choices we make and our personal tides of fate.
The writer is a wordsmith, her idiom and imagery are the twin protagonists. Lines are effortlessly imbued with lyricism. “What can one say of childhood grief? That it is lonely. That it is invisible. That it is denied the vocabulary granted to adult despair. That it shifts, mutates, but seldom vanishes. That it casts a mark. My sisters and I, we were sorrow-stained.” For lovers of language, it makes for joyful reading.
The plot is a giant memory blanket, stitched together in Deeya’s mind, swatches carrying imprints of a family that began in 1943 with Sarojaa a young girl of 16, pretty and plump, who must respond to the man with a “burgeoning rice-tummy”, calling out to her and who she must eventually marry. This story begins with that girl, Deeya’s grandmother and sweeps across personal histories of the family through three generations. Deeya is the chronicler of her family’s tales, woven into the present day situation of her own splintered life that carries the baggage of an aborted love with a much older man and the spartan landscape of a sanitised marriage. Anecdotes filled with gentle colour and tinged with sepia, are part real and part fiction. One is indistinguishable from the other.
Amamma, the grandmother with a spirit as indomitable as her spine, is sketched with the utmost care: as a young girl of 16, she forms a sisterly bond with the “barren” first wife of her much older husband. Several years later, it is hard to reconcile that personality with a “descent into forgetfulness.” In contrast, Deeya’s mother, Vanaja, “breezed through school’, “revelled in a quiet adolescence”. Her marriage comes apart one night, when her husband flees predictability and mounting responsibilities, choosing his art over real life. She clumsily holds it together for herself and her three growing girls with distinctive personalities, with the help of her mother, and the weak crutch of a bunch of unposted letters to the man who abandoned them. Bhaskar makes good use of the epistolary form: Deeya’s parents exchange shy and staccato aerogrammes on each other’s lives before their marriage. In another time, she imagines her grandmother sharing letters with the boy-man from her school days who erratically pined for her. When Deeya and Tasha, the youngest, make a trip to Norway looking for their father amidst art galleries and the rare brown face, Deeya sends Sahil, her lover, a postcard after much deliberation. Each of these letters is characteristic of their writers.
It is a household of diverse female personalities: Amamma, Mamma, Tasha the youngest and the wilful one, rushing headlong into adventure in all forms, Ranja, the first-born, prim and guarded even as a child, seeking perfection, eagerly walking the beaten track, and Deeya the story-teller. As in many writings, where women dominate, occupy familiar spaces or explore unknown terrain breaking out of comfort zones, the male characters recede in strength and importance.
Home is a theme and is redolent with sensorial richness. For little Deeya, home is an open chest made of heavy wood, filled with thick woollen clothes for warm weather, snuggling into familiar smells: mothballs and mustiness, orange and nutmeg and “that scent, peculiar, eclipsing all else – oils off abandoned paintings, charcoal, ink…” It is the strong memory of a short-lived father-filled childhood. While Bombay, the smells of Chembur, and Sahil become home for her as a young adult, the aseptic house in Providence, America, that she moves into after her marriage remains “Dev’s house”, not hers, where life assumes a desultory existence.
In the end, These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light is a lot about ties, choices, and spaces. “There are so many reasons to commit to a person. Love, some people call it, or attraction or desire…..We yoke ourselves to those who ferret out our happiest recollections. Who then build with us, not something new, but old and half-forgotten.” There is cosmic rightness in the fact that while Dev the husband works on a ship, Neil the new man she meets and knows better in a few moments than her husband of several months, captures the afterlife of ships that are seeing the end of their working life. It is strangely Ranja who states sagely to Deeya on a transatlantic call toward the end of the book, “her pitch shrill, puffs of squeaky delight, each word dipped in helium.” “It is a fact Dee. Our dispositions dictate our lives. We’re like planets, don’t you see? We think we are free to do what we like, go where we please, but we’re curtailed by our orbits.” It encapsulates an essential part of the story.
It is said of Richard Siken’s poetry that “he effectively juxtaposes holy images with mundane images – making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” The description fits Bhaskar’s writing too. These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light is an evocative story eloquently told.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.