Abandon

Abandon is the second of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novels to be translated into English by Arunava Sinha following Panty last year. Once again Bandyopadhyay seeks to explore the experience of Indian women with a rawness and honesty which is only matched by the skill and awareness with which she constructs the novel. It tells the story of a mother and child, Ishwari and Roo, seeking first refuge and then survival while on the run from Roo’s father’s family. Ishwari, having given Roo up as a young child, finds herself unable to live without seeing him:

“Countless days and nights without Roo in them haunted her like an unforgiving famine… Ishwari had become insane with need for her son.”

Despite this she is also aware that Roo will make her life more difficult:

“Why did you come away with me like this? All I wanted was a glimpse of you. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city.”

The novel carefully balances her love for her son with the frustrations of trying to care for him without any support and very little money. Luckily they are taken in by a boarding house thanks to the kindness of the caretaker, Gourohori Babu, who lets them stay in an attic room. Babu will be the first of a handful of characters who will show Ishawari kindness, though perhaps the only one who does not hope to receive something in return. At first Ishwari is only guaranteed one night’s shelter, but she manages to convince the owner of the hotel to let her stay longer. She is also able to find employment, but struggles to keep it as Roo falls ill. Her second job lasts only five days:

“On the fifth day of work… Roo fell severely ill. For three out of the five days Roo had been locked in the room from nine in the morning to seven in the evening…. Gourohori stayed by his side on the fifth day – that night Roo began to burn with a high fever.”

The novel, then, tells of the struggle for survival of a lone mother and child in a society with no safety net – but Bandyopadhyay has a greater ambition than simply to move us by describing Ashwari’sand Roo’s suiffering. Early in the novel she introduces a symbiosis between author and character:

“My famished love showers blessings on him [Roo] and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishawari continually slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window.”

Bandyopadhyay reflects this relationship in the narrative’s drift between first and third person. The relationship itself is complex: partly it is created as she imaginatively inhabits her character, but also more literally she is, in part, her character. This is true of all writers but it strikes me that Bandyopadhyay is pre-empting the assumption that women’s writing, particularly when outside ‘Western’ literature and dealing with poverty, is autobiographical. At times she identifies points where their stories cross over:

“I abandoned domestic life, left my child to arrive at a distant land to write a novel.”

It is noticeable that this frequently happens when she draws attention to her art, and the novel takes on a self-conscious aspect from the first page:

“The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.”

“One day,” she says later, “this novel will stop joy in its tracks and throttle it.” It is a “predatory novel.” Bandyopadhyay is not simply adding a post-modern gloss to her work; she is making clear that the novel is not simply an emotional outpouring. She is also identifying a danger within the genre in which she is writing (novels which describe the suffering of the poor) by alluding to the pleasure readers may get from indulging in the misery of others:

“…to the reader of this novel, I’m sure, all kinds of humiliation faced by humans, by the hungry, by the afflicted, by the beggar, by the injured are effective. The more meticulous the description of this humiliation by the writer or poet or painter, the more successful they are, the more triumphant their art. The more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable.”

Bandyopadhyay will continue to bruise the reader throughout, and all these aspects will contribute to a powerful ending which affirms in way the reader may not like or expect. It is exactly this, however, that marks Bandyopadhyay out as a novelist of great craft and skill as well emotional depth and honesty.

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3 Responses to “Abandon”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I am looking forward to reading both of her novels. I’ve had Panty sitting on my shelf for a long time and I’ve just bought this one after I saw your post about it. It will be interesting to read them at the same time.

  2. Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] would love to see a Tilted Axis book included, and my preference would be Sangeeta Badyopadhyay’s Abandon. Pushkin Press’ most likely long-listee is probably My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. When it […]

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