Post-colonialism, post-modernism and many other isms too numerous to relate flit through this flibbertigibbet of a book on Ariel’s wings—not, mind you, Shakespeare’s Ariel, but Sylvia Plath’s. The only thing lacking perhaps are those legendary angels dancing on the tip of a needle, though all kinds of angels and winged things reverberate. Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s first novel is a pot pourri of a literary event—she calls it a triptych—that manages a unique balancing act between Sylvia Plath, William Blake and D.H. Lawrence, fondly called David.
Linking the three parts is the persona of Pari, Parineeta, brought up in a convent and Bengali by birth. A girl whose mother hanged herself wearing a fur hat, the mad girl from the Sylvia Plath villanelle which gives the book its name—and the title, incidentally, has been used for a Plath biography.
Girls from Calcutta will find an immediate connect to Pari’s convent days at Tempke—though yes, you do have to be a hostelite to get the in-depth awfulness and snippets like the vanishing turkey, Afie’s appearance on the scene, not to mention forbidden romance rewarded by Mills & Boons in the library. Bhaya Nair takes a familiar world and walks it through the unfamiliar. What she does isn’t exactly magical realism, because Pari is well aware of who she is and that she is narrating something that is surreal. In a sense, she reminds me of John Fowles’s Mantissa, a muse who shape-shifts and inspiration-shifts, the whole told in an imaginary conversation.
Pari is a poet and it is poetry that is one of the main threads in the novel—not surprisingly, because Bhaya Nair herself is a poet. D.H. Lawrence, in fact, is celebrated in this novel for his poetry and not the novels, though there is a fleeting glimpse at Lady Chatterley. Certain things are taken for granted, like knowledge of the works and the lives involved—easy enough for a literature student from Presidency. Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, William Blake, Catherine, David and Frieda, they toss and jostle while Pari flits bat- or turkey-winged through her Prozac cocktails and medical reports. Aviomania is her medical disorder of choice.
Pari’s madness is given depth—Bhaya Nair gave the medical reports more prominence and linked her through suicide with Sylvia Plath. The question is, is the madness really relevant or is just an interesting gimmick to float a muse? In the Blake portion, Pari is busy egging Blake to greater heights of poesy and admiring traces of early impressionism in his work, not to mention commenting on his erotic paintings which involve winged beings. Blake, however, reads like a digression and in her end note Bhaya Nair confirms this by saying that the reader has the liberty to skip that section.
The question is—and the book arouses many questions—is this a tale of madness and suicide or is it a story of an obsession with poetry and post-colonial hangover that makes most Indians cling to the English language, speaking it on occasion better than the Brits themselves? Pari’s asylum in England in fact comments on the clarity of her English and the lucidity of her literary thoughts. And once freed of her delusions, she becomes a teacher of English literature, hat and all. Traces of Bhaya Nair’s life seem to creep in perhaps and her own literary passions—her love for D.H. Lawrence got her on to a board, she confesses.
Parineeta’s mother’s death is pure Rituparno Ghosh, a beautiful woman in a Benarasi sari hanging from the ceiling, or would be if it weren’t for the hat. The fact that Pari insists on using terms like ‘doctorji’ and ‘Amitabhji’, which aren’t exactly Bengali, does strike an odd note. Otherwise, Bhaya Nair has enough references to fill a fairly hefty section of footnotes—which, of course, goes with the academic background.
In a sense, this is an insider’s world, a world of private jokes and a sharing of intellectual knowledge with digs here and there. A world where you can rub shoulders with D.H. Lawrence, using a name that no one except his mother did. Or where you can talk about Sylvia Plath dying on the coldest night in England for 29 years and write playfully in the eighteenth century manner, if required, to strut side by side with Blake. The style is fresh, vivid and playful—Coetzee’s comment on the cover is apt—and effort must have gone into keeping the verbal somersaults interesting.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT