Kirthi Jayakumar begins ‘The Dove’s Lament’ with a very telling ‘Author’s Note’. Kirthi makes known how she got acquainted with the idea of war and conflict, and with teeming curiosity to ‘cut the small talk and go right down to know what happened to the people’, read and researched beyond the spoon-fed parts of world history. She also makes clear her solidly rooted aim behind writing stories based in myriad conflict zones. ‘An attempt to present facts through fictitious stories’, by not just following each story with a short history behind it, but also, and most essentially, by showing us the human face of universal conflicts. Thus, what began as a personal attempt to put to rest questions plaguing her mind evolved into a larger idea of raising the same mature questions in the readers’.
Symbolically speaking, the dove flies over many countries to make us see through its eyes. And lament, alongside. From the genocide in Rwanda to war-stricken Bosnia; from child marriages in India to prostitution in Columbia; and from Bachi Baazi in Afghanistan to the fight of faiths in Kashmir, Kirthi shows us the different hues of gory tragedy. But what she also shows is how the unvanquished human spirit shines in the same glorious colour across oceans and seas.
But before anything else, we need to see the ‘conflicts tearing people apart’.
War – within and without
Kirthi finds people like you and me (‘just two ordinary people forced into conflict by circumstances’) – mothers, fathers, friends, sons, daughters, neighbours and creates around them a story, which is mostly an episode; like a scene of crime and coincidence, crying or deathly calm. Sometimes loud with bullets and other times deafening in their sneaky silence, these scenes of bloodshed and tension have been visually described to the last sob. Or the last breath, whichever comes first. If this sounds dark to you, it should. Because no attempt has been made to paint conflict in any colour other than the most real one. And neither the characters nor the author make an attempt to disguise reality.
The genocide in a church in Rwanda is ‘the unholy sacrifice at the altar of hatred and contemptuous perceptions’, which is what most wars are. War, ‘the anger, residing in the crust of few, engulfs the core of many, denuding and destroying the very fabric of humanity, in its wake.’ You will meet a soldier in Israel to whom ‘it didn’t matter … that he had done the very thing that was done to him’, because men are caught in a vicious cycle of giving and receiving, even hate. Young boys in Afghanistan being traded for entertainment and sex know ‘we were just that: currency’, like girls being married at the age of seven. And even in the ‘Desiccated Land’ called Kashmir ‘people fought on borrowed hate’ and mobs ‘wore their ideologies on their sleeves’.
Kirthi is giving human voices to what remain mere statistics on television. What Kirthi is also doing, and which wonderfully adds poignancy to her lyrical prose, is basing each story around familial bonds and relationships - based on birth, loyalty or even the basic need for love.
Kith, kin and strangers
It is hard to miss the recurrent theme of parents and children in each of the 12 stories. Conspicuous by their presence, two generations are seen witnessing, perpetrating or suffering together the outcomes of ‘plans hatched in comfortable offices’ and those sinister ones forced down from family councils. Often, the narrations shuttle between the past and the present, each by a parent or a child. These are perspectives, of the same families or different ones, about immediate circumstances or like notes in a diary, written in retrospect.
You will see how a father worries for the safety of his son, but a page away another father sells his off for someone’s fun, and some money. A young boy’s tale contains the trauma of seeing his ‘mother-like sister’ being shot and yet another school boy in Peshawar gets saved by a ‘sister’ he knew not of. A baby with brittle bones is ‘perfect’ for his parents, as for their childless neighbours.
And it is through coincidences of connection or those inescapable bonds of birth that these characters cross paths to create (or to destroy) the pure fabric that we believe Humanity must remain clad in. It is also through these characters that we see shine out in this otherwise disturbing book, the ‘unvanquished human spirit’.
A tribute to the Human Spirit
The bugles don’t trill to announce and honour the indomitable human spirit that looks danger in the eye in ‘The Dove’s Lament’. That is because the dominant note is the somber one of death, and every page is grieving for a mindless loss. But, each story also vouches for the existence of the will to not just survive but to save, to shelter and to safe-keep a fellow sufferer amidst hopelessness. After all, ‘what does it matter who you are, or where you are from, when the pain you feel is from a wound that is collectively inflicted?’ Says the father being bundled up into a van with his son, for his son, during the Srebrenica Massacre:
‘When I look at my son, I marvel at him. I marvel at him not because he is mine, not because he is the youngest son, not because my other children are any lesser. I marvel at him because he survives. He is like a creeper … growing spectacularly against adversity by winding itself tight. He uses his every last tendril to suffocate difficulty with his power to survive, to strangle challenges with his gumption to defy. I watch him with amazement…’
To tell you how the stories celebrate this spirit would be to reveal too much. It would take away surprise from moments when Hope makes a misty presence in this book. Likewise, it may not let you feel enough the tragic irony that Fate ends some stories with. The book is about the dark tunnel, but it also shows you a hint of light at the end of it.
Faint, but there, this light. The author’s presence in the book, by contrast, is much more pronounced.
The Omnipresent Author
Kirthi Jayakumar is everywhere in the book. Through various characters, or even directly to us, Kirthi makes her opinions known. Perhaps, the clear-set aim behind the book led to this. Sometimes simple adjectives in the right places, like ‘brutally thrown out of their own homes when the occupation began’ tell us about her political bearings. But mostly, she’s showing both sides of the coin. Violence, though, is always ‘brutal’ or ‘mindless’ in her eyes.
Her language bears her glorious stamp and you can sense it from a mile away. It soars with its symbolism, it impresses with its imagery and it makes us connect with her characters’ pains. Very few can make pain read so pretty or write about war-torn human hearts with this poignancy. The result is something very important. You find yourself empathizing with most of the characters. The book involves you in their stories, relating your pain to theirs and making their loss your own.
That being the strength of Kirthi’s language prowess. And that being a strength not many books can boast of.
Which also means …
… separating Kirthi’s style of speaking from each of her narrator’s became impossible. Do most of the narrators sound the same? Yes. Is Kirthi’s philosophy on life, death, pain, loss, violence and war mouthed by every character? Yes. So, are the characters speaking in their own, ethnic styles in keeping with their contexts? No.
And this becomes a problem area for the book. There is much of Kirthi in all the mouths and each narrator’s language and style is unmistakably Kirthi’s. There is beauty in every speech, no doubt, but is there Rwanda in Habimana’s mama, or Israel in Amal? No. Perhaps not describing the characters in their physicality added to the effect of them all merging into one large entity – suffering, narrating and hence documenting. But then, some may argue, this may be the author’s way of giving one universal voice to sufferings of those who have a ‘scarred history uniting them’? Like a lament that fits all!
Also, I couldn’t feel the geographical context as much as I wanted to. You know, the smell of food, those typical speech words, and descriptions of clothes that are peculiar to specific countries. While the intent was to make us aware about problem areas by travelling the world, the former happened but the latter did not. So while the scenes were powerfully created, the context remained weak.
Kirthi began by asking herself:
‘What about the people in the country themselves? When would they get to choose what they wanted? When would they get to paint the picture of peace that they liked best, with the colours of their choice?’
These stories don’t answer that. No one story can. ‘The Dove’s Lament’ is what Habimana’s mother laments – ‘I wanted the dead back. The silence around was too loud for me.’ This being Kirthi’s idea of re-telling history, a human version of history. While the stories don’t come together as ‘alternative history’ they do offer an explanation of how things were behind the scenes, or how they came to be , or how we are all bound with a rope of tragic irony. How often do you hear ‘what happened to you is why this is happening to us’ in history texts? ‘The Dove’s Lament’ becomes an attempt at understanding, apart from unearthing, newer truths in a world ridden with conflict. And all of this is done in a voice so mature and profound that it belies the author’s age.
A must read collection of stories, especially for those who like faithful representations of reality, no matter how bleak, put together in a well-written literary book.
'The Dove's Lament' by Kirthi Jayakumar is published by Readomania, 2015.
[This review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]