It is hard not to judge this book by its cover, a glittering play of half tones, silver and grey and black circles and semi circles. Once between the pages, however, the spheres fall into place, with the metaphors that divide the sections into the moon and its quarters. Ghose’s heroines are cosmic—Sashi the moon, a grandmother named after the crescent moon, Nayantara, the star in the eye and Poornima the maid, the full moon. The Illuminated are the women who light up the pages, the mothers and daughters of Bengal, who tangle with issues of loss, whether of a spouse or a lover. The novel is set in a period when one relied on central telephone lines and helpful women who run hostels. When the sun of Sashi’s life, her husband Robi, sets, she is in New Jersey with her son Surjo—another son-sun play.
The story is slow to build, dwelling on the details until the emotions of those involved reach boiling point and the connect between reader and character is made.
Ghose’s is an interwoven narrative between the mother’s experience of loss and her daughter’s very different ones. It is an exploration of the different states of loneliness and love or the lack of it. It is also a story of everyday details that add up to the wholes that encompass women’s lives. A flower cruelly trampled on for unspecified reasons; tea leaves unfurling in water boiled in a copper pan…. Sashi’s textures are richer, more traditional colours and surface textures while Nayantara’s are tactile, related to bodies and the flesh, men who waft Penhaligon and Paco Rabanne, though green smoothies and spilled coffee do compete with her mother’s tea.
These are worlds which we have visited before—the Indian diaspora in the US, the great houses of Bengal with its layers of hierarchy and the world of disturbed young people who are being reclaimed for the greater good of themselves and society. Sections of the moon, perhaps, slivers that gradually wax and wane.
The worlds run parallel to each other, sometimes seemingly without links. Nayantara, unlike her mother, sees herself as a Sanskrit nayika always on an eternal tryst. Her focus is the eroticism of Sanskrit literature and she meets her match in a distinguished Kashmiri academic from Chicago who has run afoul of the right wing but who is being allowed into Mysore to set up a language lab for the study of Sanskrit. The connections come at different stages of being—like a fall back to Sashi’s early marriage days and the disappearance of the beautiful Dolly, another unearthly spirit whose luminosity seems to damn her.
It is in the end, with all the wheels within wheels, a story of love and loss or love and betrayal. Sashi knows who she is and what she wants; Nayantara, for all her confident sexual liberation, does not. But then, Nayantara seems to be an outsider in many worlds, including being rejected by the salty waters of love which she has bathed in many times before.
Ultimately, it comes to escaping from a world dominated by patriarchal gender norms where women can be themselves—a world ruled by a CM risen from the fishing fleets who proceeds to head an imaginary state somewhere in the region of south Maharashtra; She is the Shakti option to the sevaks who are determined to surround women with their obsessive protection. Ultimately the threat of violence that one expects is never realised, though it creeps around the women’s lives, demanding a kind of Gauri Lankesh denouement. The women are survivors, though hampered in unexpected ways.
Ghose’s unusual metaphors—Himalayan peaks stacked like Lego bricks or the rubbery petals of frangipani, make their impact in a text where the words, like the stories, are juxtaposed in careful balance. Though whether the much-loved Bengali amsotto should really be transcreated as ‘mango leather’ remains in doubt.
(From our archive: This appeared in the print edition as "Memories In Moonlight")