Deeper into the dark

Rihan Najib | Updated on May 04, 2018 Published on May 04, 2018

The Unseeing Idol of Light; KR Meera; Translated by Ministhy S; Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; Fiction; ₹499

The strength of KR Meera’s latest novel lies in the power of its associative meanings, but its depiction of female characters strikes severely dissonant notes

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Jhumpa Lahiri had asked, “Can language even bear the mess of our lives?” After reading the acclaimed Malayalam author KR Meera’s latest novel, The Unseeing Idol of Light, a parallel question can be raised: How do we write about the mess of our lives in a way that leads us out of it?

Translated from Malayalam by Ministhy S, the novel bears the indelible mark of the author’s imaginative prowess. It delves into themes that have come to characterise her oeuvre — unrequited love, the lifelong wounds of sexual violence, the intrusion of media into personal lives, and the uncertainties of judgement, both moral and legal.

The Unseeing Idol of Light; KR Meera; Translated by Ministhy S; Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; Fiction; ₹499


The novel opens in medias res with the 10th year of a relentless search for a missing woman, Deepthi, the beloved wife of Prakash, a librarian. Her sudden and inexplicable disappearance leaves him in a state of extreme shock, causing his eyesight to weaken. As the search wears on, he becomes completely blind. He has to rely on his loyal friend, Shyam, to help him identify body after body in countless mortuaries. Prakash eventually has an affair with Rajani, the assistant librarian, who falls deeply in love with him. Yoked to the memories of childhood sexual abuse, Rajani has survived multiple suicide attempts, and has the uncommon ability to unconsciously tie hangman’s knots, like Chetna Grddha Mullick, the singular character from Meera’s earlier novel, Hangwoman. Jealous of Prakash’s persevering devotion to his missing wife, Rajani takes the drastic decision to leave him. Even so, she obsessively seeks out Deepthi, the recipient of the kind of love and reverence usually reserved for idols that are worshipped. Meanwhile, Shyam abandons Prakash for a long, life-altering journey after he realises that he made a fatal error in identifying a woman as Deepthi. The non-linear narrative splinters to follow other subplots, each of which unravels truths that overturn what the characters had held to be true.

This is where the Malayalm title, Nethronmeelanam, takes on meanings that the English translation is unable to capture. Nethronmeelanam, literally, the ‘eye-opening ritual’, refers to the ceremony of sculpting or painting the eyes of the idol, which is the final stage before the idol ‘becomes’ god, or is recognised as such. Each central character undergoes a moment of reckoning, not unlike the concept of anagnorisis in Greek tragedy, where the character’s sudden awareness of the situation, let them recognise things for what they are.

The novel’s strength lies in the associative meanings it evokes — the complex ways in which words acquire layered significances through its interactions with the lives of the characters. Characters in the novel who are deprived of eyesight are still able to ‘see’, giving new connotations to ‘insight’, but their clairvoyance, like that of Cassandra’s, is dismissed. On the other hand, those who have vision are impaired by their blind spots, rendering their judgement indecisive. Moreover, the meaning of the characters’ names — Prakash (light), Deepthi (glow), Rajani (night), Shyam (twilight) — reveal defining aspects of their personalities, and is also linked to the degrees of their blindness.

However, for all the self-conscious deliberation that has gone into the novel, it strikes severely dissonant notes. For an author whose reputation rests on the portrayal of women, it is disheartening that the women in this novel are presented through the lens of tragic plight. Each female character of any significance is made to run the gauntlet of graphic sexual violence, and then left to shrink into oblivion or commit suicide. But why do women, fictional or otherwise, still have to do that? There is no contention that this is still the case for countless survivors of sexual violence, but if the purpose of fiction is to imagine a way out of the darkness, why resolutely imagine one’s way back into it?

Deepthi, Rajani, Abha — these characters lead lives marked by trauma, and are given no way to rise above it. Instead, they thrash about, shattered by the force of their own actions as well as what has been done unto them, before settling for a choice that neither dignifies their struggle, nor empowers them. Meera has vividly brought out how gendered violence operates in complex ways in patriarchal societies. But women have resisted such violence, repeatedly, and at great personal cost. Unfortunately, in the book, sexual purity is still the arbiter of a woman’s self-worth. The melodramatic defeatism in a line like, “No woman who had accepted the sweat, saliva and semen of eighteen men in one night would be able to return to her first man” — is particularly galling, especially in the time of movements like #metoo and #pinjratod. Trauma ought not to be reduced to a plot device that neatly ties up the loose ends of a character’s arc. We turn to fiction as a salve for wounds that we don’t know how to heal, and fiction should not have to be the knife that cuts us deeper.

The question this review began with — how do we write about our lives in empowering ways — is also linked to another, more pertinent one: What responsibility do authors have towards their readers, especially when they are writing about sensitive issues like sexual abuse? But of course, that is for authors to answer.

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Published on May 04, 2018
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