A little love, detective work and technology make the book a fantasy for adults.
Imagination is an incredibly elastic being. And books, especially those written with a spare elegance, can invigorate, stimulate and inspire the mind to soar. But sometimes a book stretches the elasticity of imagination beyond its possible limits, making it snap and not work any more. There is too much input, too much verbiage, too many cross references, even too many words packed into too small a space, making the whole obfuscated and confusing. The Dollmakers' Island is rather like that. The writing is good, skilled, clever even, but the plot — the story itself — tries perhaps too hard to be all that and more. Clever, yes, the concept is indeed far more intelligent than the usual novel. Plot, well, like the curate's egg, wafer thin in parts, interesting in others. The presentation — now that is where the sticking point comes. And the reader tends to get nicely stuck in a bog of the writer's making.
The story is in essence a simple one — an island, which is sometimes there and sometimes elsewhere (sort of like the plot of the book) is home to a group of dollmakers who are as elusive as their home is. Their art exists, but do they? A new government is not sure whether they are the good guys or the bad, but to be sure, they need to be found. Why have these artisans left their island? Or are they in hiding somewhere, reached by a ladder that appears and vanishes as ephemerally as the men themselves? At the centre of this tangled web is the musical Leela, who is forced to cooperate with Ronen Ghito of the new government even as she tries to find her voice and her Shyam. She shows her moods and her intentions through her hairstyles, secrets tucked safely into her braids, and talks via emails and letters that tell the story of her life and the life of the country she lives in. In those, she traces India's history, from the early Mughals to colonisation by the British to the astonishingly rapid crumbling of the Raj, the riverbanks and the life of the times.
The dollmakers are said to be representative of India's vast and anonymous masses, those little people who contribute to making this one of the greatest nations on earth, but who are rarely, if ever, acknowledges to even exist, leave alone be significant in any way. The book is a fantasy for adults that moves across the time-space continuum without spending too long anywhere, any time, with a little love story (Leela and her Shyam), a little detective work (Ronen Ghito and his band of goons), a little technology (as Leela learns about computers, the Internet and web connections) and some Bollywood melodrama (the great flood) makes for a fun history lesson, with more than one twist and a whole lot of characters playing their various parts on the stage of life.
The book begins with Lord Mountbatten feeling entombed. And the reader dives into a maelstrom of happenings and dates that never quite get sorted out, even as Gandhi's glasses wander in and out as if they were a real human character. Leela looks for her Shyam frantically on the Internet travelling into and out of urls and negotiating firewalls.
And all the while she is also seeking to regain her voice, to sing again. When she does, as she does, all hell breaks loose and a computer virus takes over, slowly, then gaining speed, then causing total chaos, annihilating time and space, the island, the government and history itself in a fabulous, noisy, incredibly messy climax.
Sort of like that mind after the imagination has gone beyond elasticity. Leaving the reader exhausted and wanting chocolate to recover from it all.
The Dollmakers' Island, Anuradha Kumar, Gyaana Books, p. 239, Rs. 255.