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The difficult poetry of love and loss

Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel tells an affecting family saga, shot through with poetic prose

Detail from ‘Group Of Three Girls’ (1935) by Amrita Sher-Gil.
Detail from ‘Group Of Three Girls’ (1935) by Amrita Sher-Gil. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dharini Bhaskar’s first novel is an ambitious undertaking. A story of three generations of women of a family living in Bombay, before it became Mumbai, it is familiar terrain, part of a tradition of writing that features novels by writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Anita Desai. More recently, Small Days And Nights by Tishani Doshi, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and Avni Doshi’s Girl In White Cotton tread similar ground: the bittersweet love between mothers and daughters. However, These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light is distinct for the sheer force of its poetry and central characters, nursing their thwarted lives and loves.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light: By Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light: By Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India, 328 pages, 599.

From the elaborate title, which is borrowed from a poem by the American writer Richard Siken, to the texture of every sentence, it is evident that this is a poet’s novel, shot through with metaphors and allusions that signal its literary antecedents. The story is narrated by Deeya, or Dee as she is called by friends and family, partly from memory and partly the result of her compassionate imagination. Dee is an unreliable narrator. Her version of events is not necessarily the only truth, nor is it to be taken without a pinch of salt. Even when it comes to her own life and choices, we are not always privy to her deepest, darkest impulses. Her refusal to surrender herself entirely to the reader lends her an air of mystery.

Like most family sagas, at the heart of Bhaskar’s is the story of betrayal. In the case of Dee and her two sisters, it is their father who deserts them one day, though signs of his restless yearnings had always shadowed the family. A painter by temperament, but forced to become a journalist to care for his family, he is not violent or gratuitously cruel. Rather, he is just a fickle man, without conviction, overwhelmed by his responsibility of fulfilling the role of the pater familias.

It falls on Dee’s mother, then, to care for her three daughters. To her children, as much as to herself, she declares that he is in Norway, working to keep the family fed and clothed. But she is not a feminist in a conventional sense. Early on, Dee tells us that her mother “wanted…the simple pleasure of housekeeping". Marriage, for her, was the obvious path to finding such happiness, though it eluded her. The impact of losing their father is formative for her children. “We’re doomed to spend our adult lives recovering from our childhoods," as Dee says towards the end of the novel, speaking not only for herself, but also, seemingly, for her sisters.

Dee’s grandmother Ammamma is made of sterner stuff, though, not inclined to buy into fabrications. But she is also succumbing to old age and amnesia, creating another miasma of half-truths around the house. The four women, alone in their individual miseries, are all fortified by their resolve to tiptoe around the jagged edges of truth and allow their collective denials to fester into a semblance of reality.

Bhaskar’s gift lies in sustaining this fog of uncertainty throughout the novel. The line between what’s known, knowable, unknowable and imagined is so blurred that at no point can the reader feel secure in their understanding of any of the characters. Dee’s narrative voice, gently surmising and cooking up what-if scenarios, is the keel that directs the plot through its circuitous twists and turns.

In spite of the obvious polish of her sentences, Bhaskar tends to get a bit carried away at times in the poetry of the moment. The conversations between the characters sound stilted (Dee to one of her lovers: “I’ve spent much time dreaming of elsewheres, occupying other spaces" ), denying them a life beyond the page. Some affectations could have been avoided (“This is my voice, so it must be me"; “The accent is indecisive, so one must assume it is Dev").

Sometimes the plot could feel weighed down by too many literary allusions, requiring a full-on reference section at the end of the book. From a long exposition on Lethe, the Greek river deity of forgetfulness and oblivion, to discussions on the merits of Djuna Barnes’ work, Bhaskar’s allusive canvas is thoughtfully esoteric—though a little less of this paraphernalia may have kept the reader more steadfastly rooted to the human intensity of her story.

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