Invoking the 2017 murder of activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh, K.R. Meera’s new novel begins with an assassination attempt. Satyapriya, a woman in her mid-40s, arrives at her house in Bengaluru around midnight. Suddenly, a man on a motorcycle rides up and shoots at her three times. Her quick reflexes, which prompt her to duck and fall to the ground, and the arrival of her young neighbour save her.
Though shaken, Satyapriya tries to put the incident behind her and goes to her parents’ home in Kerala. There, Sivaprasad, her bedridden father, paralysed after a knife attack 24 years ago, tells her she “too may be killed sometime soon”. Before Sivaprasad can elaborate on his sentence, he collapses and dies, leaving Satyapriya more shaken and with more questions than when she arrived.
For Satyapriya, her father’s warning also stirs up memories of her sister, who died in an accident. Now she wonders: Was it an accident a murder? And why was her father, who had been a film producer, stabbed 14 times and left to die by the roadside? She realises that what she had considered to be accidents may have been targeted attempts to kill her and her family members.
This sets Satyapriya—named fittingly—on a quest to find out whether the accidents and deaths around her were indeed dealt by the hand of fate or by the designs of a powerful enemy.
Set during the early days of demonetisation in 2016, Meera’s Assassin, a translation of the 2022 Malayalam novel Ghathakan, follows a thread where currency, or the lack of it, becomes an especially powerful weapon of oppression and suppression. Pegging the story to the public angst created by a series of political decisions—the rumours around currency notes, the paucity of liquid cash, people collapsing and dying in front of banks—the author keeps the politics of the times playing in the background even as the protagonist goes in search of the people who want to see her dead. Meera uses events of political significance to depict Satyapriya’s feelings, be it the way she compares the protests around jallikattu to portray her state of mind when she finds out about an indiscretion committed by her father.
Similes and metaphors work themselves in seamlessly. In true Meera style, they are not just flourishes but tongue-in-cheek ways to drive home her points. Sample this example, through which she succinctly comments on power, caste and money: “Experiences are like the banned one-thousand-rupee notes. They are worthless when you want to drink a cup of tea, but you can display them like museum pieces. You can bargain and auction them too. Experiences are like that”. And this on memory: “…memories…are not like currency notes. No matter how much you ban them, they will return.”
The challenge of translating such turns of phrase is hardly felt thanks to J. Devika’s astute work. Her familiarity with Meera’s work, especially with her award-winning translation of Aarachaar as Hangwoman (2014) and of Mohamanja as Yellow Is The Colour Of Longing (2016), help in making her intervention unintrusive.
Satyapriya prefers to conduct her own investigation; her experience with men in power prevents her from cooperating fully with the police. She meanders and meets people once close to her, with whom she had parted ways abruptly. Somewhere along the way, a startling realisation dawns—her very name is an important clue.
Through the course of the book, the protagonist also comes to recognise that the phrase Satyameva Jayate holds special meaning in her quest to unearth the truth. Her quest for truth leads to the unravelling of other truths she had taken for granted. A thought slowly emerges: Perhaps what she seeks is actually mithya, something that does not even exist.
This epic saga, which starts with a search for truth, touches upon a large set of characters whose place in relation to Satyapriya and her family is intricately determined. As the tale unfolds, the people closest to her turn out to have feet of clay that dissolve in cesspools of falsehood and avarice.
Like most Meera novels, this book, too, deals with patriarchy and the gender violence it perpetrates, and resigned acceptance by women who do not have the power to fight back. It also highlights meticulously how caste, money and power work together to create a world demarcated by those whose voices command attention and those who must yield to the expressions of power.
Through the travails of Satyapriya’s family, the narrative also focuses on the trauma of people displaced from their homes. It shows, in meticulous detail, how things can change overnight: “Having to leave the house you were born and raised in is not losing a home, it is losing your soul’s nest,” writes Meera early in the novel, when Satyapriya’s father goes bankrupt and loses everything.
If there is one character whose strength does not falter at any point, it is Satyapriya’s mother. The only daughter of a wealthy businessman, she counters the criticism and caste slurs directed at her by her husband’s high-caste mother and siblings by ignoring them and doing whatever it takes to ensure the comfort and safety of her family. Her no-nonsense attitude becomes the fortitude that fuels Satyapriya. With strength and resilience, and without resorting to violence or pettiness, she displays her power as the matriarch who cannot be felled by the world’s uncouth ways.
In her author’s note, Meera writes: “Assassin is an attempt to document the times and lives of the women of my generation as personally witnessed by me. It is my own humble experiment with the Indian political truth…Satyapriya has a lot of me in her, and her mother’s quirkiness is borrowed from my own.” Meera, who was once told her writing was not feminist, recounted this in a Vogue India interview a few months ago, saying she did not want to write for feminists—she hopes her work will convert readers into feminists.
In Assassin, it’s the silent strength of the women in that drives the story. The actions and reactions of women whose guarded observation of the gross acts by the men in their families—be it husbands, sons, fathers or brothers—have them rising to help each other, reinforcing the truth that when women come together, they can make a real difference.
Kochi-based Fehmida Zakeer is the translator of ‘The Dreams Of A Mappila Girl’ by B.M. Zuhara