Review of Sakina’s Kiss | Vivek Shanbhag delivers another winner with his new novel centred on a broken promise

Eight years after his bestselling first translation, ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, the Kannada writer’s new work dabbles with themes at the intersection of class, caste, gender and power

Published - October 06, 2023 09:30 am IST

Author Vivek Shanbhag

Author Vivek Shanbhag | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

The publication in English of Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (2015) transformed the Indian literary scene. The book’s success decisively shifted the balance of power, whether in terms of sales or prestige, away from English-language writers and towards fiction in translation.

Ghachar Ghochar’s influence owed nothing to prizes, Western acclaim (although much of that was to follow), or publishing hype. It was an entirely home-grown, bottom-up phenomenon. It spread in the old way, reader to reader, propelled only by its intrinsic quality and the excellence of Srinath Perur’s translation.

Shanbhag has not been short of offers to publish his backlist in English. But he has chosen, for understandable reasons, not to work with other translators. Thus his readers in English have had to wait eight years for another book. Those readers will have Ghachar Ghochar as their frame of reference; and many of that book’s themes and methods can be found in Shanbhag’s latest, Sakina’s Kiss.

The novel takes place over a few days but, like Ghachar Ghochar, its scope extends to multiple generations in the life of its central family. In another parallel, Sakina’s Kiss too is propelled less by events than by the unreliability of its narrator. The opening chapters suggest a plot-driven “literary thriller”; but the book eventually reveals itself to be something far more unsettling, a novel where the reader moves from asking “what happens next” to asking, of both narrator and novel, “who are you?”.

Confronting the past

Sakina’s Kiss is narrated by Venkataramana, a mid-level executive whose situation is reminiscent of 1950s’ American portrayals of corporate bureaucracy, such as in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or The Apartment. Early in his career, his name “dwindled to Venkat”, and he wonders if “my easy acceptance of” that dwindling says “something about the firmness of my convictions”. Every aspect of his life, from his marriage to Viji, to his relationship with their daughter Rekha, to his corporate career, is defined by mediocrity and stasis.

Venkat has become the sort of person to whom nothing happens, until a group of menacing young men shows up at home asking for his daughter. His daughter has gone to their native village, seemingly the only place in Karnataka that mobile phones can’t reach; but within a day or two, it seems that she has in fact disappeared. In pursuit of his daughter, Venkat will encounter gangsters, policemen, up-and-coming politicians, and tabloid journalists. He will be forced to confront aspects of his own past that, for decades, have been safely left interred.

This is a fair summary of the plot, of the kind that publishers (I speak from experience) have to produce for their blurbs. It is a poor summary of a novel that, in barely 170 pages, takes in Malnad and Bengaluru, class, caste and gender (and their intersections), and the battle between idealism and the cynicism that calls itself pragmatism. Few novels of any length are so versatile in their offerings.

Power dynamics

Perhaps Shanbhag’s most characteristic device is the way he uses individual, even tiny incidents or gestures to convey power dynamics within a family, and in particular within a marriage. There is sometimes too much of this (a device can become a tic), but at his best, which is often, he gets his message across with extraordinary power.

Distinctive to this novel is a concern with the ways in which our selves are constituted by the culture we consume. Indian films have often been accused of exaggeration in their portrayals of cops and criminals; but those men, the novel argues, now take their own cues from what they’ve grown up watching. Venkat’s mediocrity is thrown painfully into relief by his lifelong addiction to self-help books.

The novel also has echoes of such unreliable narrators as John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ Ford-inflected The Sense of an Ending. The strongest resemblance, however, is to another novel that, like Sakina’s Kiss, was published in 2021 — Damon Galgut’s Booker-winning The Promise. That story dealt, like this one, with the moral and psychological consequences over generations of a family’s failure to honour a promise. In each case, the promise in question is a plot of land.

But where Galgut impedes the force of his moral inquiry with a heavy-handed, sometimes sanctimonious tone, Shanbhag’s novel is subtler and thus ultimately more devastating.

Sakina’s Kiss
Vivek Shanbhag, trs Srinath Perur
Penguin
₹499

The reviewer is the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.

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