Culture & Society

Book Review: ‘Soft Animal’ Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s ‘Soft Animal’ is set during the Covid-19 lockdown and appears like a memoir-meets-fiction kind of a work, notes Anjana Basu.

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Anjana Basu reviews Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s book ‘Soft Animal’.
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Soft Animal
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
Penguin
Rs 399

Mallika, the narrator of what one might describe as a cross-genre memoir meets fiction work begins by announcing that she does not like her husband very much anymore, a very stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of statement. Ominous, especially when the reader comes to realise that the story is set in the face of approaching Covid-19 pandemic. 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s Soft Animal is set in the time of lockdown when, as we all know, people were left without the cushioning impact of society and were confined for the most part to their homes. She inhabits the inner life of Mallika Rao, married barely three years to Mukund Chugh — a love marriage which has led them to set up their own household in a flat in Delhi.

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Madhavan’s is a slow burns social commentary that gradually acquires heat — Mukund’s friends comments on ‘master’ bedroom which gets Mallika’s goat, a feeling of neglect when she chooses to give her household help leave for a while and then discovers that her husband leaves all the dishes and the laundry for her to manage. Of course, there is the fact that he is working from home while Mallika is out of a job and that eats at her ego.

The lockdown was responsible for destroying various relationships as well as the job market and Madhavan’s narrative takes this into account. The story is peppered with footnotes that act as a subtext to Mallika’s way of thinking, everything from comments on her nieces, her housework, her décor and more, scattered with generous randomness throughout the pages.

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Madhavan describes how people began to adjust to living with the virus — there is a description of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initial banging of plates to salute workers who were serving in the face of Covid-19. She tells it in fragments, the way it infiltrated the lives of those who thought that it would not last for long, people accumulating information on the subject, an intrusive WhatsApp neighbourhood group and visiting senior citizens who are living on their own. However, she does leave out the masking — there is no rush to buy masks though Mallika does comment on a woman wearing her mask under her chin while she herself is closely scarfed in hijab-style.

Apart from social distancing, the virus distances Mallika from Mukund. So much so that when she discovers that she is pregnant, she chooses not to tell Mukund about it. Instead, she reflects on the cells that are growing within her and tiring her down uncertain what to feel. 

The question is, in a new millennial world are our bodies our own? Mallika refers to a poem by Mary Oliver where the body is described as a soft animal — “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”.   Mallika uses the italics of the poem throughout as a means of emphasis. She and her mother’s dog that she takes care of while her mother is locked down in Hyderabad, develop a kind of relationship — like Gudiya, Mallika feels that she is being controlled, forced to give in to whatever happens. However, Mallika is not a dog and her feeling that she has a right to her own body grows. This does, however, raise questions about ethics in a relationship — does the man have a right to know? Or is a decision to divorce enough to justify silence?

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Madhavan does run through the ins and outs of it, to tell or not to tell, to have children or not — Mallika riffles through episodes in her own family to clear her own thinking and ultimately reaches out to the only person she knows who might be able to advise her on Zoom no less. 

People familiar with the Covid-19 scenario might wonder how long she stalled visiting the gynaecologist since the lockdown situation did not suddenly end as it does in the book but dragged out. Admittedly Madhavan does it for the convenience of her story, but the curiosity remains. As also does the fact that Mallika suddenly realises that Mukund is not as indifferent to her as she thought and wishes that she had seen that side of him before. But that doesn’t shake her resolve and she goes ahead with her plan of action. 

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Soft Animal is rich in detail and occasionally catty observations on people in troubled times and makes a valid comment about relationships — but perhaps it all winds up too fast; perhaps life and the cells deserved a second chance or perhaps all assumptions are mistaken. Though certainly, a weird scenario creates weirdness between people.

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