The coming-together of the personal and the political in literature is a theme that never ceases to fascinate me. This, coupled with an age-old interest of many writers, of how ordinary lives are shaped by events beyond their control is what Ranbir Sidhu's Dark Star holds space for, through an exploration of the Partition.
Dark Star tells us about an “old woman", who is so old she has forgotten her name and is now simply waiting to learn how to die. She is lonely, with no emotional connection with her husband or sons. She grapples with trying to understand the life she has led, which ended up being shaped by decisions taken by men – whether it was the Partition, or whom she should marry, or even what saree to wear while getting married.
Sidhu is a prolific writer. His previous books, Good Indian Girls (2012) and Deep Sea Blue (2016), were critically acclaimed. In Dark Star, he comments on the ideas of memory and home, on women’s lives in India and its loneliness, and of course, on the development of the Indian state from a land ravaged by hate in 1947 to its current shape. He doesn’t shy away from commenting on the Farmers’ Protests, the CAA-NRC acts, or even the decisions of the Prime Minister, though he never mentions them by name.
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However, it is the loneliness of the girl/woman/now old woman that is at the heart of the novel. The character never mentions any friends or confidants; she is forced to move as per the whims of her husband or father in some cases, the whims of Sir Cyril Radcliffe (the British lawyer who is known for affecting India's Partition) in others. The patriarchal nature of families is explicit. The protagonist calls herself a “Good Village Girl” and vows that if she ever had a daughter, she would teach herself to be a good village girl too. What does she mean by this? It’s the belief that “however wrong your husband is, and most men are wrong about most things, he’s still your husband and therefore he’s right.”
As she lies in bed and thinks back on her life, she realizes there are many things that she has forgotten. The shadowy nature of memory looms large in this novel – how much of what we remember is true? The novel therefore also plays on the idea of truth, too. Is there anything as the absolute truth, the book asks, from its very first words: the sea is said to be blue, but it looks green and black, too, at times; the protagonist had grown up hearing that snow was white, but in her second winter in London, the snow looked black, more than white. What, then, is the truth? And if there are no universal truths, what about the truth of individuals? Did she get married in a red sari or a green sari, for example? She cannot remember even such details; her mind has tricked her into believing things of which she no longer knows the veracity.
As the protagonist moves back and forth constantly in her thoughts, the past and the present come together. The imagery in the book reminded me of both Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children (1981) and Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines (1988). The idea of two nation-states being mirror images of each other, represented by two individuals in the story, is not new. The concept of movement and exile, so that there is no comfort of home or belonging, is also widely explored in literature. Sidhu, unfortunately, does not add anything new to the discussion here.
What works for the book, however, is the heartfelt account of the narrator-protagonist. It is hard not to sympathize with her. Dark Star is a touching account of the loneliness of women and of the burden they bear every day, whether at home or during wars.
Mumbai-based Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education and relationships