A arachaar by K.R. Meera is a novel that makes a striking impact on the reader for the sheer magnitude of its ambition. The book resonates with a strange subversive energy that grips individuals and communities and comes loaded with clues that this story has mythical proportions and historical dimensions.
Set in Bengal and meticulously researched, it tells the story of a family of executioners with a long lineage, beginning in the fourth century BC. The last in this chain of inheritors of a dreaded profession is a young woman, Chetana, who in contemporary Kolkata is forced to don the mantel of an executioner for carrying out the death sentence of a man prosecuted for rape and murder. It is a daring book, for the panoramic sweep of its canvas, for the sheer audacity of its narrative logic, for unsettling and probing the Malayali’s notions of femininity and masculinity, for its irreverent play with the paradoxes of life - Love and Death.
The protagonist of the novel is one of the strongest and most tenacious of women ever conceived of in the literary imagination in Malayalam. A character whose ruminations and skilful use of weaving the yarn, of telling a new story everyday before the television camera, reminds one of the subversive story making skills of Shahrazad, the legendary story teller of the One Thousand and One Nights.
However, if Shahrazad’s tales anticipated life, Chetana’s stories anticipate death. This contemporary Shahrazad’s performances in the ‘live’ show named ‘The Hang woman’s Diary’ is in compliance with the contract signed between the anchor of the show Sanjeev Kumar Mitra and her father, as all deals invariably are in a patriarchal society. However as Chetana slowly takes control over the tale, the teller and the tale become fused to weave a web of enchantment that harnesses creativity to political purposes.
There is an artistic and highly evocative use of women’s testimonies and mythologies for laying bare their physical, emotional and sexual harassment in the past and in the present, in the public and the private spheres of life.
Invoking the jatra tradition of folk storytelling performance to critique contemporary visual and advertising media, Chetana invokes and re-invents her lost ancestors to expose the tentative and ideological nature of reality in a postmodern world of simulated truths.
Many readers might flounder during the initial pages packed with slightly banal and superfluous descriptions smacking of an air of pretentiousness. But soon the flat prose, sagging under the cultural baggage, lifts itself up to offer a deliciously engrossing narrative blending contemporary history and ancient oral and performance traditions, with chapters ending in cliff-hangers. There is an implicit notion of parody built into the novel, often leading to a radical questioning of the distinctions between testimony, biography, fiction and history.
The author seems determined to retrieve a feminine history, to forge a historical continuum and create a collective sense of women’s identity. Thus the modern myth of the ‘traditional’, conveniently contained, tame and docile woman is blown to pieces by retrieving oral histories of ancient mothers who were transgressive and powerful.
The climax of the book is a real masterpiece in lyrical subversive prose. Here is a book which refuses to create women characters who are magnifying mirrors for colossal male egos, eternally bound and constrained in the images constructed of them from male points of view.
Instead, the male gaze is often reversed to reveal how women look at men. The book signifies a uniquely poised postmodern moment in Malayalam literature and also a milestone in women’s writing in Kerala, while simultaneously addressing the regressive, anti-humanist and alienating tendencies of a commoditized, capitalist culture.
MEENA T. PILLAI