K R. Meera’s new novella, Qabar, translated from Malayalam into English by Nisha Susan, packs an arsenal of meanings into the title. The decision to leave the title untranslated is inspired—“grave” barely conveys the aura of doom associated with the original, Qabar. The word is like a bell that tolls the reader into the folds of a sinister tale.
Ever since she shook up English-language publishing with Hangwoman (translated by J. Devika, 2014), Meera has given non-Malayalam readers a steady flow of shorter fiction. The Gospel Of Yudas (translated by Rajesh Rajamohan, 2016) and The Poison Of Love (translated by Ministhy S., 2017) are testimony to her ability to shock and bewilder. Despite the recognisably middle-class underpinning of their settings, these novellas boldly overstep the cloisters of propriety. Meera’s protagonists—women wronged by men they love passionately, even self-destructively—are tragic and vengeful. Like characters in classical Greek tragedies, they are on a heroic pursuit of justice. And even as they are crushed and aggrieved, they can transform themselves into fearsome harridans, determined to exact savage retribution if the occasion demands.
Right and wrong, as Meera repeatedly implies in her fiction, may be comforting social constructs to live by but justice—in its most fulsome, complex and primeval form—is riddled with contradictions. Often, it defies reason, at least in the way reason is defined by neat legal frameworks. In Hangwoman, for instance, justice doesn’t come with the final tightening of the noose around the neck. Rather, it is manifested in the slow, agonising walk-up to the fatal moment, during a journey that’s paved with a million micro-aggressions and perversities.
Qabar follows a similar strategy of building up suspense and suffering, though its brevity doesn’t allow Meera to exploit this tactic as fully as she could have. The protagonist, Bhavana, is more restrained than the women we usually meet in Meera’s stories. “Love is like milk,” says Tulsi in The Poison Of Love, “with the passage of time, it sours, splits and becomes poison.” The melancholy that consumes Bhavana is also a festering evil but she is made of a different mettle. Divorced from her husband, who is bitterly envious of her career, parent to a boy afflicted with ADHD, and employed as assistant district judge in Kottayam, she is vulnerable and steely in equal measure.
If Tulsi’s vengeance against patriarchy involves retreating into the life of a widow in Vrindavan after declaring her philandering husband symbolically “dead” to herself, Bhavana chooses to remain very much a woman of the world. She is as capable of dragging her son to shop for new clothes to attend her ex-husband’s wedding, as dissolving into tears, defeated by his childish but incoherently wild rage. But, one day, as she sits down to adjudicate a property dispute, Bhavana suddenly finds her world crumbling.
The plaintiff in the case is Kaakkasseri Khayaluddin Thangal, who, Bhavana notes, is “a hottie”, trailing the sweet fragrance of “Edward rose” everywhere he goes. His petition challenges the sale of a family plot to a charitable trust by his brothers. On this piece of earth, he insists, rests the grave of an ancestor which is getting desecrated due to the construction of a new building. But other than his unshaken faith in the existence of this qabar, Khayaluddin has no hard “evidence” required by law. It’s impossible to miss the allusion to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi episode but the political message, unlike the closely intertwined history of Naxalism and Emergency that forms the bulwark of The Gospel Of Yudas, is not heavily laid on here.
Instead, Qabar flows nimbly, digging layers of metaphor out of its chiselled prose. The top soil of the story is fertile with erotic charge. From the second Bhavana claps eyes on Khayaluddin, she is smitten by his “Sean Connery’s figure and Kamal Haasan’s eyes”. Feelings that had lain dormant in her body for years are fired up, causing her to faint in court. Later, as Bhavana thinks back on the incident, she exhumes a truth she hadn’t allowed herself to confront in the hullabaloo caused by her swooning. Hugging her sleeping son that night, she feels “pity and contempt for (her) body that had been embraced only by its own child for six whole years”. “My outer self had become a qabar,” she thinks. “Its dark depth took in my inner self.”
As Bhavana unravels the mystery of Khayaluddin’s ancestral qabar, she keeps stumbling upon other buried secrets. For one, she discovers his connection with occult and djinn worship, a possible reason for his hypnotic grip over her. More troublingly, the spectre of Yogishwaran Ammavan, her own ancestor, comes back to haunt her. One of the many great-uncles who went away to Kashi (now Varanasi) to die by the Ganga, Yogishwaran returned home after some months, in the pink of health, with two beautiful girls, possessed with supernatural powers. The lore of his comeback, the miracles wrought by the girls, and Ammavan’s grisly end, have attained a patina of awe among subsequent generations. Soon it becomes difficult to tell just where Bhavana’s personal stakes in the case end and Khayaluddin’s begin.
As dreams and reality churn inside the cauldron of Khayaluddin and Bhavana’s past and present, their interconnected ancestral histories become infected with communal histories—with accounts of migration, religious conversion and seamless miscegenation. Like Bhavana’s “qabar of love”, Khayaluddin also begins to expose the wounds buried under his skin. Although outwardly he may seem like a wealthy and influential male, he is “none of that” inside. “I am a man who has experienced a riot. Once a huge mob strips you naked and looks at your genitals to find out which side you are? (sic) ” he tells Bhavana. “No one to whom that has happened—whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim—stays a person.” This sudden turn of the screw is classic Meera: Just when you thought you were reading a psychological thriller, you are forced to pause and realign your moral and intellectual compass.
Qabar is perhaps most potent and meaningful as a modern parable. At its simplest, it sets out on a quest to preserve a grave. But digging deeper, into the shifting sands of illusion and reality, it struggles to disinter the humanity that is being buried each day by divisive forces in contemporary India. That’s where the novel outshines the scope of a political or psychological thriller—and becomes something uniquely rich and strange.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.