May 14, 2013

Book Review: The Song Seekers

A powerful and poignant exploration of the oppressive darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of ‘modern’ India, Saswati Sengupta’s debut novel, The Song Seekers, raises compelling questions that continue to haunt the reader for a long time.

Set in the turbulent 1960s in Bengal, the novel revolves around the life of newly wed Uma, an English Literature graduate from Miranda House, as she steps into the threshold of her marital home Kailash, the ancestral mansion of the highly reputed Chattopadhyay family of Calcutta. Even as she tries to find her footing in a new, unfamiliar world, Uma is intrigued by the shadows that seem to linger in the sprawling mansion; her husband’s silence about his mother’s death, the presence of the enigmatic green-eyed Pishi, a few old letters kept safely in her father-in-law’s bedside drawer – all hint at a mysterious family past.

Uma is drawn by the overwhelming presence of the traditional Chandimangal – a mahakavya in medieval Bengali literature which celebrates Goddess Chandi – composed by her great-grandfather-in-law, the ascetic Brahman poet Neelkantha, and printed at the family-owned Ganges printing press at the height of the anti-colonial swadeshi movement in Bengal. Gingerly at first, Uma begins to read aloud the Chandimangal of the Chattopadhyays to an audience of three – the mysterious, aged Pishi, the lower-caste Bagdi maid Khema, and the poor, but upper-caste, cook Bamundi. These seemingly innocuous reading sessions, in which a motley group of women gathers in the kitchen of Kailash every afternoon to read and discuss an epic narrative, soon lead to a thrilling investigation of the past itself, as smothered histories begin to emerge.

How does one explain the sharp disjunction between the imagined power and freedom of the goddess, as celebrated by the upper-caste male poet, and the lived reality of flesh and blood women? How did the goddess who rode lions, slayed demons and roamed forests freely, get reformulated into the compliant, subservient wife, confined to the domestic sphere? Does the goddess, too, have a history? As the women of Kailash unravel the layers of the Chandimangal and interpret the figure of the goddess in terms of their own lived experiences, the answers begin to take shape. The normative feminine sphere of the kitchen turns into a space of subversion where the women grasp the “cunning of their opponents, no longer in awe of the sacred thread”, and the reader becomes a secret sharer of this subversive female knowledge.

As the plot unfolds, so does the tainted history of the Chattopadhyays – where every male member from Neelkantha onwards is a namesake of Shiva. The ‘kulin’ status of this respected Brahman family, it is revealed by the green-eyed Pishi, is inextricably linked to a horrific act of violence. The deep foundation of the great family mansion named after the abode of Shiva conceals the muffled cries of a small seven year old girl being smothered to death by a stranger who had married her. This gory family secret serves as a scathing indictment of the caste structure, and the Brahmanical preoccupation with purity of blood and lineage which inevitably has dire consequences for women.

The picture that emerges with the progression of the novel reveals how knowledge that is hailed as the ‘truth’ is consciously shaped, formatted and interpolated in order to consolidate the supremacy of the elite upper-caste male. As the four women of Kailash gradually learn, Brahmanical hegemony is established through an accommodation and annihilation of the culture, literature and social practices of those who are lower down in the caste hierarchy. Women and the lower-caste are denied any articulation in such a caste-patriarchal society, and are thus left to seek a song that they can call their own. The novel ultimately lays bare the oppressive assumptions that continue to operate in the name of tradition and asks for a new conception of culture, not as “sanskriti with its devouring fire sacrifices, presiding Brahmans and elite ways” but as “krishti that reminds us of the sweat of labour and the peasants’ lives”.

The novel does not progress in a linear manner, but continually flits across space and time, thus effortlessly weaving together the history of the militant goddess, the presence of the Portugese in Bengal, the rise of print, and the freedom movement and its repercussions, even as Uma attempts to unearth the dark secrets of Kailash. The constant flashbacks and parallel narratives, against the backdrop of Bengal’s political history, add to the density of the narrative and make the novel a layered one. The storyline is engaging and forceful, and the characters convincingly portrayed. The narrative is sprinkled with irony, such as that directed at the small and smug Brahman man who perhaps palpably felt the “purity of the blood that was coursing through his veins”, or at those elite upper-caste men who refused to interact with the children of prostitutes and set up the Hindu Metropolitan College, “though it is not known if at the same time they also stopped patronising prostitutes.”

In all, the book makes for a stimulating reading experience and is highly recommended. With its subversive feminist thrust and persistent questioning of what constitutes religion, tradition and culture, The Song Seekers is sure to strike a chord.

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