Thursday 13 October 2016

The beauty and power of Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’

It is not often that you read a book and admire it not just for what it is but also as a part of a larger, ever-growing storm of women’s writing. A book that enjoys its firm individuality thus while simultaneously adding its voice to the generations which came before is Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’. And it does both with immense beauty and power.

Devika is Gautam’s obedient and quiet wife, spinning her world around her son’s meal times and her husband’s exacting nature and busy medical practice, which keeps him away and her alone. Their lives are led with clockwork precision, a routine which the majestic Meera Mansion sees day after day. The interruption walks in in the form of Shaurjyo, a young man on a vacation and half-heartedly looking for direction to his life. Till he meets Devika, that is. The book begins with Shaurjyo’s narration from 2008, five years after this first visit to the house, this time with his film crew. The chapter sensually hints at ‘half-remembered tastes’, mutating dreams and unpaid debts. There is a story behind the story and Nandita makes Devika and Shaurjyo narrate it to us in their own sweet sense of time and space, like a ‘sequence of introspection of pain and the loss within’. All this while real is being recorded as reel, as Shaurjyo and his crew shoot their movie. After all, isn’t that what brought Shaurjyo back to Meera Mansion? 

In the process gets created, in language rich with symbolism and literary tastefulness, a tale of violation and loneliness, responsibilities and obliterated identity and an unhurried awakening towards a sense of self; a reclamation of the myriad aspects of Devika’s self that had vanished. Because marriage and love are two distinct spaces in Nandita’s ‘Shadow and Soul’ and while one self-abnegates here the other empowers!

What is this ‘awakening’ I talk about?

Way back in the 19th century, American columnist Dorothy Dix wrote about how unselfishness in women was a cult. How they wore it ostentatiously, went out of their way to become martyrs. Somewhere around then women were also awakening to the fact that ‘they have been overdoing the self-sacrifice business’ and while a ‘reasonable amount of unselfishness is all right’ (for it could be out of love, really!), the woman who is imposed upon has only herself to blame. For there are ‘middle grounds’ available where they can ‘propose to take their stands’. And even options to fight for their rights! 

So many centuries later we meet Devika as the woman Dorothy was writing about, and we see she has little vestige of personal liberty left. ‘Shadow and Soul’ is Devika’s journey of recognizing this plight, stepping away from it gently, choosing to control her circumstances and in turn awakening Shaurjyo to the inescapability of his life’s truths! 

How it happens?

A few pages into the book and we see Gautam’s ‘invisible hostility masked as teasing’ and Devika’s silence ‘a tentative compromise with reality’ as the norm in the house; the one who spent the money to run it owned it too, and her with it. Over a beautiful scene, where Devika sits sketching a face (because Shaurjyo introduced her to this art) we see the juxtaposition of her married years with the creation of the face on the paper. The more she draws, the more the realization dawns – ‘my silences had become eloquent while his verbiage turned incomprehensible.’ 

The desire to share her solitude gains strength, and the thirst to feel whole trails on its heels. What follows is one of the loveliest book depictions of two people moving towards each other, in mind and body, ‘gripped by an unknown dread … and hope’. With delicious slowness Nandita unravels the turmoil and temptations that mark Devika and Shaurjyo and this ‘interlude of madness’. The impulsive reader will miss the beauty that this hesitant, tip-toeing relationship is full of; of ‘a thousand wishes masquerading as misgivings.’ A patient reader would have ‘tasted the truancy’ of a relationship which resists labels; which is defined by its very undefinable nature! And because it is not events and twists and turns which are moving the story forward at this point, we are left undisturbed to soak it all in, as if we were invisible confidants to the scenes where a sense of well-being comes to these two characters sip by sip, safe-keeping each other’s needs …

In the dark she spoke softer, almost in a whisper. ‘Can we forget for this one night?’
‘What do you want to forget?’
‘Reality. My age. Yours. Our situations. Responsibilities. Right and wrong. Everything external. 
Everything but what we need to mask all the time. What we feel inside.’ 

Something is different five years later, when Shaurjyo returns to Meera Mansion as a lost, angry and misfit man. More worldly, so to say. Faced with truths beyond their helping, Devika and Shaurjyo’s relationship now stands in the very world they made unseen the last time they met. Gone is the delicateness. The escape. Arguments ensue, with Shaurjyo torn with contradictions. But Devika? More aware than ever!

‘I didn’t realize that certain experiences are viewed in isolation such that everything that precedes it is negated. I have learnt only now, the woman’s situation always classifies the act at some level between tawdry and sublime, irrespective of how or what the man felt at that time.’ 

It is this rude return to “worldliness” that makes the dual acts of awakening in ‘Shadow and Soul’ commendably rooted in reality, and Devika a much more meaningful protagonist than simply a woman who comes across an alternative and runs to it. The act of reading this book is involving at not just the level of the senses but also at the level where self-examination and dangerously subversive thoughts exist. Both the power and the beauty of this book, seen in the creation of the central characters, their relationship and the strength of the closure, are also reflected in Nandita’s unmatched expression and style that she uses to tell this story.

Nandita Bose owns her style. 

Shadow and Soul’ is full of the most beautiful expressions of love and longing, thoughts about marriage and relationships and lyrical contemplation into what could be our own life’s situations. The author takes you inside her characters’ mind, till you lose yourself, and gently draws you out with the slightest touch of the fingertips. The chapters, named after works of art, end not on threads which create curiosity to know the story further, but at points of expression which leave a lingering impression. Which go beyond the mere tale and make the telling of it the point! She commands her words thus, reining in or letting gallop the pace of the story, till ‘everything else does not exist. Not even concepts of possibilities and impossibilities.’ Just beautiful language!  

Nandita’s use of symbolism can gladden many a literary heart. There are dragonflies and sketches, the river and chapter titles. And then there is the unmistakable connection between Devika and Meera Mansion. Both ‘properties’ of her husband according to the ‘rules of engagement’. Both have character, a sanctity, age, experience and a routine. Later, Devika and Shaurjyo’s explorations of spaces in the house parallel Devika’s awakening to yet-undiscovered feelings and wants within her. Says Shaurjyo – ‘When I first saw you I didn’t know which was more beautiful – the house or you.’ But it isn’t its beauty alone that gets him back to it as a filmmaker. It’s what he experienced there. Meera Mansion with its river nearby becomes that feminine space which nurtures, feeds, provides and cares, and much more when it is awakened and aware. 

I wonder why I feel no need to include in my review the film actors’ stories or the events which ensue around them. After all, it is a part of the story of this book and not entirely avoidable. But most characters, other than the two central ones, seem lazily drawn bordering on typical. The mutual dynamics of the actors and actresses are neither apparent nor enrich the premise of the main story. If it wasn’t for the blurb I would not even have realized their relationships, yearnings and interests at all! Is this true, or am I too smitten by Devika and Shaurjyo who made dull in comparison all else that came in the book?  

Much about Nandita’s ‘Shadow and Soul’ is reminiscent of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’, both novels of their times. Like Nandita, Chopin too wasn’t terribly explicit about the mechanics of sex. What her novel showed, like this one here, is how to be free in one’s self and for one’s self, yet remain meaningfully connected to others. Devika’s evolving relationship with her grown-up son, Gaurav, reflects this in the end. However, while Chopin’s Edna reaches her autonomy with a terrible price to pay, Nandita’s Devika manages to integrate her awakened self to the physical and social realities which surround it.  Because Devika knows, what Edna in her times probably could not, that ‘we have the prerogative of self-determination.’  Where intentions are explicit because of action, and human agency far superior to mere Fate, or even suicide following a destructive solitude...

How difficult it is to write a review of a book you loved! First, I could not begin. Then, I was besotted with countless resilient echoes of women writers who added their voice to the immortal feminist discourse. And now, I struggle to conclude my thoughts about Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’. Devika believed ‘Moonlight and paintings are dreams. Reality is stark. Maybe it is tough too. But in the end, that is all there is, all that endures.’ This book will endure that test of time, for like good literature, it draws from and depends on shared forms and representations of experience – yours and mine, our shadows and our souls. 

'Shadow and Soul' by Nandita Bose is an Amaryllis publication, 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]
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