Supriya Dravid’s debut reprises the poshness of l’art pour l’art. Built word by word, trope by clever trope, enfrilled by luscious prose, A Cool, Dark Place is an artist’s unabashed monument to pure pleasures. And that, in the recent times of cautious and non-hedonistic writing, is itself cause for celebration. It is neither to be shelved as a confessional piece nor as a conscientious political allegory, reflecting contemporaneity or the seamy underbelly of life as it were. Supriya Dravid, with the disarming elan of a young writer, crafts a world out of the choicest artifacts, assembles this and that, leaving a trail of family lores, grief and memory. The title itself, for those of us stuck on Sylvia Plath, recalls the dark basement where the master-crafter of death lay dying for days.
The novel curates madness, holding up lovingly and with acute grasp the intertextuality and fierce logic underlying it. The tale of Zef, her child-mother Gravy, the hired father and preserver Sancho, the grandmother who reveals herself through photographs, and Don, the absinthe-eyed caballero grandfather who lives in a moth-ridden, Versaillic mansion in Madras, is, technically speaking, a family saga. Their story is told through metaphors, synecdoche and allusions—which stand in as evidence and somewhat solidify the life crumbling all around or the memory of one that is past.
The utterly Eurocentric sensibility is sometimes overwhelming. It is perhaps intended as a legacy of Don, the devourer of books, lover of music and collectibles who has created a formidable landscape of objects and memories. Be game if you will for a biological father who is a James Joyce lookalike. Not that it makes the world of Zef more or less credible. Supriya writes with honesty, making no excuse for the signposts that lead her to the realisation of truth.
Often, the construction is like a last troubadour’s attempt to freeze every fleeting literary allusion and lore in the world into a song, perhaps befitting the paranoia of a memory historian but a little too crowding in a novel sometimes. For instance, Don, Sinatra-like, is also vampire-like. The connection is understandable. Utter beauty, immortality and the world of vampires coexist. It is an author’s bid to find a place where timeless flamboyance may exist irrespective of geography and context. And well, the thing about memory and madness is that the world is an oyster. Since much of it is happening in the head, Don sails to the Middle East, wanders into Algeria, takes a boat to Greece, studies the New Testament, sells underwear and biscuits and finds himself in Warsaw.
The journey into that inner universe, albeit spectacular and engaging, is too symmetrical. The madness itself, the obliteration, seems arranged. Hence in the end, perhaps a bit poised. But there are many salvaging factors. Supriya Dravid is an insider in the world of utter pain and delirium. Sample her surefootedness: “I felt as if I was falling from some tall building and she decided to fire information at me as I fell”. Such vividness and the unremittingly distinguished prose saves the novel from becoming a literary ‘room of requirements’. Or the exquisitely evoking descriptions of loss. Aphorisms abound, cutting through the clutter of delirium and fancy. For those keen on indulgent writing, there is a veritable treasure trove to rummage through—such as “a little opium box with chilly in it”, an e-mail to Ozzy Osborne, and a Frida Kahlo-like grandmother.
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