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Scandal and success on the Carnatic stage

Krupa Ge’s debut novel explores caste, class, gender, and family conflict against the backdrop of Chennai’s classical music circuit

A view of Marina Beach in Chennai, one of the settings in Krupa Ge's novel.
A view of Marina Beach in Chennai, one of the settings in Krupa Ge's novel. (Wikipedia)

Long before and since Leo Tolstoy’s quip about happy and unhappy families, the latter have been a fount of inspiration for fiction writers. Krupa Ge’s first novel, What We Know About Her, follows this hoary tradition of telling stories about inter-generational conflicts, as her feisty narrator, Yamuna, sets out to uncover the ‘secrets’ about a long-dead grandaunt that her family is still trying to hide across a gulf of decades.

It’s another matter that the 'scandal', when it is revealed in the end, turns out to be something of a damp squib, at least compared to the more colourful exploits of Lalitha, the celebrated ancestor, famed performer of Carnatic classical music and a feminist icon in her own right. But mere titillation isn’t the aim of Ge's finely-wrought novel, which weaves in ideas about identity and agency subtly and thoughtfully into its somewhat simple plot.

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An early bloomer, Lalitha had a unique aptitude for music in an era when it was a taboo for respectable Brahmin girls to sing in public. Her supportive father, older sister Subbu and musician brother-in-law Kannaiya (the latter being Yamuna’s grandparents) made it possible for Lalitha to shine, in spite of her doomed marriage to an abusive husband before she had crossed the threshold of adulthood. What We Know About Her, as the title indicates, is Yamuna’s attempt to recover Lalitha’s legacy from the shadows, to not allow her glory as an artist obscure the hardships she had to overcome, including gross injustices from her own family.

Yamuna, who is a PhD scholar researching Tamil musical traditions, has her vision of the charismatic, eccentric and iconoclastic Lalitha (who drank Gold Spot during her concerts and was profiled by Life magazine in the 1940s) rudely shaken when she stumbles across a bunch of letters in her grandfather’s home in Varanasi. Kannaiya, who is in his mid-90s, shifted to the holy city, like many pious Hindus, to live out his last years by the blessed Ganges. But the move was also way of distancing himself from Chennai's musical circuit, its petty politics, intrigues, and covert snootiness towards half-Telugu outsiders, like Kannaiya and his family, among their midst.

What We Know About Her, By Krupa Ge, Context-Westland, 204 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
What We Know About Her, By Krupa Ge, Context-Westland, 204 pages, 499

Yet, Kannaiya’s connections to his roots, like his granddaughter Yamuna’s, are not easy to shrug off. Their ancestral home in Chengalpattu, a town in Tamil Nadu, is a millstone that hangs around the family’s neck. Yamuna, who spent her formative years there looking after the house, wants it for herself. But her leftist mother, who wrests this inheritance for herself, has other plans. Nestled within Yamuna’s project of exhuming the details of Lalitha’s life is the story of her complicated bond with her mother, where intense affection coexists with resentment and animosity. Yamuna’s father and brother seem relegated to the fringes of the family unit, shaken up by frequent collisions between two strong-willed women, at loggerheads over the ownership of the family home in particular, but also over another, more sinister, burden that lies buried in its very foundation.

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Yamuna’s unconventionality, her tormented relationship with the men in her life and refusal to play by the rules are prefigured by Lalitha’s quietly rebellious spirit, documented in a series of letters between her and Subbu in the turbulent 1940s. Back then, as in the 21st century when Yamuna encounters these epistolary exchanges, there was a fascist menace in the air. Adolf Hitler’s mercurial rise in Europe and the Hindu Mahasabha’s growing hold over the subcontinent find uncanny parallels in the rumblings of protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act more than a hundred years apart. Ge introduces these political upheavals into her narrative as backdrop to the domestic dramas that are at the heart of the story, including an achingly sweet romantic subplot, which throws open Yamuna’s inveterately misfit status among Chennai's elite. Lalitha’s sense of being an outcast, in spite of her legend—especially the pride and fortitude with which she embraced it—is the legacy that lives on in Yamuna.

Ge’s first book, Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood, was a deft work of reportage on the devastating floods that besieged Chennai in 2015. Her debut novel is also charged by her confident storytelling, along with her ability to illuminate the intersections of caste, class and gender, especially in the lives of people who are loathe to reckon with these uncomfortable truths.

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