This nebulous post-colonial fable is a surreal walk through the lives of Sylvia Plath, William Blake and D.H. Lawrence.
In an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition” published in 1846, American literature giant Edgar Allan Poe set down three conditions that great works of literary art must meet: length, method, and the unity of effect. By this, Poe expected the work — any work — to be planned for, to be designed from beginning to end. He deems the necessity of appeal a vanguard from the reader’s perspective, and roots the work’s success in conveying subliminal messages to the reader not through a spontaneous overflow of thoughts but as the fulfillment of an ever-present purpose. Yes, Wordsworth and Ginsberg did disagree with Poe’s appraisal, but Rukmini Bhaya Nair prevaricates this need-for-purpose with a curious asymmetry of detail that renders her Mad Girl’s Love Song both enervating and exhausting.
The book is a surreal walk through the lives of Sylvia Plath, William Blake and D.H. Lawrence, unto each a part in that order. She explores these authors’ lives, their emotions, their actions as conspired by their ambitions and traumas, and through them lets slip the undertow named Pari, the eponymous Mad Girl who is a manifestation of the author’s confrontation of the cultural schizophrenia that she thinks has gripped the country. Through Pari, Ms. Nair places herself as angel and muse in the lives of these people, pushing Plath and Blake toward inner peace and glory. With Lawrence, whom Pari fondly calls David, she fights to pull herself together, while all along, the world without believes she is schizoid and dreams of flying with the invisible wings crowning her back, in much the same way David confronts vitality and morals. Through it all, Mad Girl’s Love Song is exhilarating as far as it’s a tale of reconciliation, of subsequent revolution.
Alas, that is where the book recedes into a privation. Ms. Nair, a linguist, is honest with the liberties she takes in keeping the narrative an unabridged reflection of Pari’s mind. It is clever: Mad Girl… flits between scenes, whizzing through space-time, visiting England and America and — blink an eye — we’re back in a fictional town in Bihar, where Pari is growing up as the daughter of its richest resident.
Mad Girl… is unmistakable as a post-colonial fable with its generous allusions to English literature and geographical English setting itself, where many of its characters seem to belong yet not belong, a dilemma arising out of speaking a language whose tone and character is alien to what they want to use it for. This bifurcation is best expressed in Ms. Nair’s own words (as stated in the Acknowledgments): “Being raised in India on a diet of English literature, even in this day and age, was a quite maddening fate. We had after all imbibed our marvellous command over English from ‘non-native speakers’ and learnt to write in it largely on the basis of reading about countries and climes that we’d never experienced first-hand.” Difficultly, this bifurcation is ‘less better’ expressed in the story, evoking a struggle on the reader’s part.
Because then, a nudge from Ms. Nair—you’ve tripped into another world, other worlds! Suddenly, the plot becomes too clever, drawing on parallels between Pari’s and her imagined beneficiary’s lives with painful detail. Even insignificant names and traits seem founded on just insignificant, purely historical details from Plath’s, Blake’s and Lawrence’s lives.
Was Ms. Nair taunting me? The number of references would imply she was, but then there is also the question of whether she intends it. In attempting to craft a work of fiction, Ms. Nair may have succeeded, but as for the work of fiction itself, it is not for every reader, and there I’m left wondering if it could have been.
For, if it had, Mad Girl’s Love Song would have been haunting.
Unfortunately, many sections, including large swaths of the second part devoted to Blake, eventually seem optional, and the ending is rushed. For its formidable authorship, this is a book that has to explain itself in many parts. To finish off: Length – check; method – double-check; unity of effect – nebulous.
In all my long conversations with William, I never quite managed to convince him, despite Ginsberg’s terrible wailing, despite all my wiles, that America was the greatest love-hate puzzle of the future. Yet now in a single poem, David had changed all that. He had painted in the early twentieth century an exact picture of America in the future.
Mad Girl’s Love Song, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, HarperCollins, Rs.399.