A quirky narrative of love, loss and redemption.
In the Madras where Supriya Dravid locates her book — in an old, large, dilapidated, crumbling bungalow that is precariously dangling on the life and force of its single, singular, extremist, eccentric, audacious, alcoholic occupant rightly called Don — the sun never shines. It is winter throughout; the wind is always cold and gloom is a guest who never leaves. From a physical point of view, the attribution of cold to a city where summer is a permanent season is no doubt a little odd but really, almost everything about Dravid’s debut novel is a little unsettling. And within the chaotic, complicated, and complex stories of people who inhabit its pages lies the book’s beauty.
The opening pages feature a death in Delhi. The narrator, a young Zef, and her mother are left to cope with the loss of a father, and husband, respectively. Zef’s father Gravy has, after years of mentally withering away, succumbed to suicide. As if death isn’t depressing enough, Zef has to cope with a sudden revelation from her mother that Gravy isn’t her father. Efforts to escape to a new landscape fail miserably and Zef returns to her mother’s childhood home in Madras where she is still mourning Gravy’s death while waiting for her father, Don, to die.
There Zef learns and unlearns people and their past. Skeletons tumble out of every closet — walls, wardrobes, study, drawers — and, almost as if time is running out, Zef’s mother allows her into obnoxious secrets about her own life and that of Don, over long-drawn, incoherent, inebriated, random conversations.
In a way, the book is a diary of sorts, a memoir, a stuffing of memories, a chronicling of Zef’s own, hopeless, dire and desperate journey towards catharsis. Despite the deranged, dysfunctional, dyspeptic, nature of its characters and the stories, the book sparkles with a sense of romance. Love is mostly unrequited, and even the only love that Zef’s mother finally finds in Gravy is a lie, a deal, a manipulation, an arrangement. And yet, in fragility, there is a sense of solidity.
Zef’s relationship with Don — Donna, as she lovingly refers to him — comes alive through a series of over-the-top episodes and incidents. Equally poignant is the picture she paints of Gravy: “he kept my heart in the safest place possible — inside his.”
The book’s two integral pillars are its imagination and construction. From a writer’s perspective, Dravid is like a finicky architect who is equally concerned about design, context and ambience as much as she is about materials and modes of construction. As a narrative of narratives that journeys and meanders through towns and into the innermost recesses of people’s hearts and emotions, A Cool, Dark Place is like a family portrait whose beauty is in the detail, and detailing.
Rooted in a south Indian context but with names that, in many ways, reflect the very nature of the characters, Dravid uses creative license liberally to call her father Gravy, her “comfort” and her grandfather, Don, “control, power.” It is perhaps deliberately that Zef’s mother remains nameless; we only see and hear of her stories of love and loss, hurt and hopelessness, redemption and the desperate need for renewal. With so many stories of loss, the book could have easily slipped into a saga of soppiness. It doesn’t. It is a prose with many verses consciously crafted with love and labour. Only, its content is life, loss, quirks, eccentricities and the ability of the human spirit to digest, and not digest them all, slowly, suddenly, and well, still move on...
A Cool, Dark Place; Supriya Dravid, Random House, Rs.302.