Another Look at India’s Books: Usha K. R.’s “A Girl and a River”

January 4, 2022

In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.

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The Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács was a defender of social, if not socialist realism. A wholesome realism, embracing the totality of society was, for Lukács, a more responsible mode of narration than the idiosyncratic impressionism of modernist fiction. The stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce represented a bourgeois indulgence that a responsible social realist would avoid. Social realists like Thomas Mann and Maxim Gorky set better models of fiction. The strange combination of austerity and expansiveness at the heart of Lukács’s theory echoes with the advice given by Mahatma Gandhi to a young Mulk Raj Anand in Sabarmati ashram. In response to Anand’s troubled query about whether it was justifiable to write fiction in English, the language of the ruling British, Gandhi had simply said that, if the purpose of writing was to communicate, one should write in the language in which one could communicate best. The idea of fiction as communication — especially of social messages — came to define the spare and often hard-hitting Gandhian realism with which Anand has come to be identified in the history of Indian English fiction.

Notwithstanding Lukács’s endorsement, social realism has always lacked literary glamor. The fireworks of modernism and postmodernism have made it unsexy, and in the history of post-Midnight’s Children Indian English fiction, the style is a dull footnote revived only occasionally by a few like Rohinton Mistry and Shashi Deshpande. But it is another Bangalore-based writer, Usha K. R., who in 2007 published what seems to me the most perfect realization of Gandhian social realism in 21st-century India. A Girl and a River is a deeply moving novel that starts as a microhistory, swirls into an epic, and concludes on the minute and intricate note of a family memory.

Sometime in the 1980s, a woman, helped by a couple of books and letters, digs up her memories of her father’s enigmatic sister. The tumultuous 1930s come alive, a period when her father and aunt were children, living in the princely state of Mysore in British-ruled India while the anticolonial movement led by Mahatma Gandhi rocked the nation. Setu and Kaveri, the girl named after the river, grow up under the tough tutelage of their father Mylaraiah, who admires the British as well as the royalty of Mysore, which, he believes, protect them twice over against the “nonsense” of Indian self-rule championed by Gandhi. The incendiary world of anticolonial struggle, and a household divided over it, particularly over the cause of women’s liberation, recalls the fictional universe of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic novels Gora and Home and the World. This is a setting as vivid as it is disturbing, populated also by English characters such as the physician Dr. King, her niece Ella, and Mrs. Spencer, the missionary’s wife. Inside Indian homes, the English are accorded a degree of respect that, like the porcelain on which they are served, is a kind of defilement for religious, caste-conscious Indians: “Achamma did not care for bone china; it struck her as strange that this cold material should be considered the hallmark of elegance among the mlechchas but she was thankful for it as it saved the household [utensils] from defilement.”

The conflict between Mylaraiah’s Anglophilia and the Gandhian momentum of freedom struggle is a painful, defining concern for his family, and particularly for his daughter, Kaveri, who is drawn to the firebrand young revolutionary, Shyam, and for Mylaraiah’s wife Rukmini, who feels let down by the hypocrisy of “progressive” men in their community giving away their daughters in child-marriage. A relentless supporter of the British, Mylaraiah feels that the moment the British leave the country, it will be the end — unconsciously anticipating, as it were, the genocide marking the partition of India and Pakistan. Mylaraiah casts a shadow on the free-spirited Kaveri that is both dark and magnetic; irked by his Anglophilia, the girl is also fascinated by a certain worldview he represents, and the vocabulary with which he does it: “Bounder … blackguard – blagard! Ablutions, that’s another.” That rich ambivalence is also on display at what is possibly the most explosive moment in the novel, when Gandhi visits the town, setting fire to a range of passions. The image of the man who moved empires is etched with a strange mix of banality, tenderness, and wonder: “The Mahatma was taking a nap, fifteen minutes from 1:45 pm to 2 pm. When Setu’s turn came, he saw a small, bald man asleep on the floor, slack jawed, his dentures waiting in a bowl beside his mat, next to his spectacles.”

This mundane tenderness sums up the achievement of this novel — its ability to show that the most tumultuous historical questions are also the most pressingly domestic, that the wilderness of the nation is in fact continuous with the intimacy of home. Such, perhaps, is the work of responsible social realism.  

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Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism — Prose of the World (2013), a work of nonfiction College (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays — The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in January 2022.