where the writers are
Date of Review: 
Published Work: 
Ampat Varghese
Whisper Stone

It is the first time I am reading an Oriya writer, and a woman, in translation. Of Indian women writers, I have savored Kamala Das, who hails from Kerala and wrote in Malayalam and English, Mahasweta Devi, who wrote in Bengali, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander.

But, Sarojini Sahoo’s versatility and contemporaneity surprises me. Her style is smooth as honey. Her interests are varied and her complex insights into the many layered world a 21st century middle-class Indian woman inhabits are beaten into this simple, elegant artifact – The Dark Abode, a book that reiterates for me the often un-encountered or silenced strength and sophisticated understanding of the vernacular Indian woman writer’s voice.

Three things irk me about this downloadable e-book. One, it is a translation and, yes, it works but one senses a certain lack of capability on the part of the translator. I wish I could have read it in Oriya.

Two, the “forward” (sic) has a lengthy reference to Uma/Parvati, the consort of the mythical god Shiva, and a silly question is posed to the reader: Is the protagonist in this novel a modern, living form of Uma? Is she all that Uma represents in human form? I invite you to decide whether she is or isn’t.

Three, each chapter is preceded by black and white sketches of naked women, slightly abstract and erotic. These are by one Ed Baker, an American, but some of them fail if the first intention was not so much titillation as adding an extra layer of meaning to the work itself.

The story itself begins in cyberspace with the protagonist Kuki being sucked into a cyber-affair with a stranger who captures her being with his words of fantastical passion in rather cheap poetry. Kuki is a middle-aged, middle-class housewife, educated, married to the hard-working corporate slave Aniket, with two kids, the seeming Sita (or Uma) stereotype.

The storms break upon her soul when she begins receiving intense, impassioned, emails from Safiq, a Pakistani. Her curiosity is aroused by the insane interest the Muslim takes in her and soon they are involved in a romance like sixteen-year olds which yet carries that dangerous edge of sensuality and purpose that only grown-ups can fathom for better or worse.

As the relationship zigzags through ups and down and contrary circumstances, Sahoo explores themes that are extremely contemporary – the Indo-Pak and Hindu-Muslim divide, the substance and insubstantiality of virtual ‘love’ and cybersex mediated by “hot” words that are often poetic in essence, the coalescing and separating of two distinct worlds and lives, the malady of the quotidian in middle class Indian marital relationships, the inevitable hook-up between artist and rasika, the demands and discrepancies of keeping up with the Joneses, the Damocles’ sword of terrorism and surveillance, the dilemma of sexual fidelity versus free sex, the impulse to purity in the quicksand of morality and repressed needs.

Safiq is a polygamist, philanderer and artist in Pakistan and Kuki is drawn deeper and deeper into deciphering and coming to terms with his personas even as the process unravels for herself the meaning and purpose of her own identity (Safiq re-names her Rokshana) and existence and that of her husband. Inevitably, they become partners in the crimes of adultery and infidelity. The “dark abode” is both the homely space she inhabits in utter subjection to her husband who often humiliates her and the secret new life she has discovered on the Net with Safiq who honors her as a goddess. Aniket, of course, is the orthodox “good man”, the Pati Pavitra, and Safiq the raconteur and pervert.

The virtual affair embodies (or disembodies?) the promise of the possibility of a Maha Bharat, a unified India and Pakistan, the transcending of the divide between Islam and Hinduism and the iconoclastic and idolatrous, through sexual and emotional understanding and integration of opposites and dualities. Yin meets Yang in the circle of passion. And the possibility is raised of Sita, giving herself to both Ram and Ravana to possess both.

“She had read Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” …And Safiq is her vehicle to take her out of her domestic prison expanding from thence into three other worlds. “The first one was about the common man’s world; the second was ethereal love; and the third one related to sensual love.”

Kuki’s dilemma. “Could she have ever guessed that this very life would open up such new vistas in front of her? On one hand there was Aniket; short-tempered and obsessed with cleanliness. On the other, there was Safiq; honest, broad-minded but perverted. A quiet strength and constancy went in Aniket’s favor, while Safiq impressed her with his sensitivity and tact. If someone were to ask her, ‘Whom do you want?” she would answer, “Both.””

The plot slowly becomes more complex as Kuki tries to piece together a stable, composite picture of her Pakistani lover as well as Aniket. In the process, she begins to understand herself as perhaps the “eternal feminine”; she “is large and contains multitudes”. There are the emotional ups and downs, fears and anxieties that lovers undergo when in converse with and when apart from the loved one, and there are the moments when Safiq touches her at the core of her sexuality in a way that Aniket will not. “The long e-mail was full of descriptions of physical intimacy and lovemaking in different positions and postures. She felt suffocated. She felt wet.”

Kuki comes across a painting by Safiq titled Alienation in Delhi but she does not have the money to purchase it. She is drawn increasingly into his artist’s world-view, his dream of going to Paris or getting a job in Columbia University (he does get to Paris but doesn’t make the job) and his desire to take her along with him, his family and the marriage of his daughter and, finally, the dashing of his hopes. She lives his life vicariously as she tries to fathom the meaning and purpose of this relationship. She is tormented by the fear that he might be a Pakistani terrorist and that his phone calls might be traced and land her in trouble or, worse, shame!

Her fears almost come true! Safiq’s life is destroyed under President Musharaff’s regime when his second wife Tabassum, much younger than him and to whom he has given the freedom to take her own lovers provided she remains loyal to him alone, gets into trouble with some military big-shots. When she refuses to fulfill their carnal desires, they reopen an old case against Safiq pertaining to him having had consensual sex with a model who is blackmailed into bringing a sexual harassment charge against him. He is also linked to someone who engineers a terrorist blast in London.

Most of the novel consists of Kuki sitting on her side of the glowing computer screen and reading Safiq’s emails. These help her understand and empathize with the four women (leaving aside the 52 other women with whom he has had sex) central to his life – his first wife, Tabassum, Nagma – his daughter by his first wife, and Linda Johnson, the American woman “who had clued him into the intricacies of sex”. Kuki had initially hated all of them. Safiq opens for Kuki the possibility of her being that “ordinary” woman who can yet encompass the feelings and struggles of all women and who is also able to receive into her bosom at least two men, polar opposites.

In the end, Safiq is jailed in Pakistan and writes: “Rokshana, will you wait for me? Till I get out of custody? …Kuki sat down and wiped the tears from her cheeks, at a loss to fathom the depths and impossibilities of a human relationship nipped in the bud by so many unreasonable constraints. She would wait. For Safiq, for her love, till all her hairs turned grey, till the wrinkles conquered her face, and perhaps till the day she closed her eyes for good. She would wait for the voice that once charmed her ears and echoed with a subtle resonance in her soul, a voice she had never told anyone about, then or ever since.”

Therein lies the tragedy of this tale of transgression, the tragedy being that of every middle-class Indian woman, educated yet shackled, wanton and yet proscribed from its expression, passionate and yet subjugated, looking for reality and experiencing only virtuality, longing to speak out and yet condemned to silence.

The clever analogy Sahoo draws in the novel is that of the Pakistani artist who dares to break the yoke of orthodoxy and pays the price for it. He is a model for the Indian woman who dreams of breaking a similar yoke. The difference is that he is willing to pay the price for his inner freedom while the Indian woman remains secretive and silent in her “dark abode” where the only light that penetrates comes in through a computer screen through a forbidden voice from the “other”, a forbidden land and religion.

Kamala Das, the aristocratic Hindu Nair woman, blazed a trail by opening up the Pandora’s Box of women’s sexuality for public discussion. In the end she converted to Islam and married a Muslim. Mahasweta Devi gave voice to the marginalized and downtrodden. Jhumpa Lahiri is sophisticated enough to gain access to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. Arundhati Roy bulldozed her way to international fame and loads of moolah with an isolated literary stroke that included a clandestine relationship between a Syrian Christian woman and a low caste male. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander have each carved out her own niche among the literati of the Indian diaspora. As for Anita Nair, based in Bangalore, I wonder why I bothered to read her.

But, apart from Kamala Das or Mahasweta Devi, Sahoo provides for me the most powerful indictment of the powerlessness of the Indian woman in any tale I have read penned by an Indian woman writer as yet.