To the abyss and back | Review of ‘Soft Animal’ by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

A story of the unravelling of domestic life at the height of the pandemic

August 25, 2023 09:30 am | Updated 09:30 am IST

In her less-than-happy state, everything looks jaundiced to the protaonist.

In her less-than-happy state, everything looks jaundiced to the protaonist. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan spins a very readable tale of how a woman in her late 30s, married to a man who seems quite nice, out of a job, and facing an endless number of lockdown days owing to COVID-19, is forced to take a close, grim look at herself and what she wants in life. The answer obviously is: not this.

The protagonist Mallika Rao has a wicked sense of humour, somewhat dulled now by all the odds she perceives are stacked against her. This is a book which has its main character first standing on the verge and staring into the abyss, then slowly slipping into it, but not so deep that she can’t haul herself out. Nowhere in the story is the ‘D’ word mentioned, yet it is clear to the reader that Mallika suffers from depression.

And in this less-than-happy state, everything looks jaundiced to Mallika: her life, her appearance, her neighbours, her friends, even her sister… and of course, her partner Mukund. Her prejudiced and judgemental gaze sits lightly on her parents’ dog Gudiya, whom she is forced to babysit (dogsit?) while the lockdown continues, and on Brig. Rit, the retired armyman at whose house she drops in often to offer help, an offer that is inevitably refused.

The wit is pronouncedly sardonic. The progress of COVID-19 and its impact on residential associations are detailed with a dash of delicious cynicism: bhajans relayed over loudspeakers; strangely delineated walking paths; advice on how to keep the virus at bay with ginger, honey and chanting; social distancing at the grocer’s and so on.

Not so hilarious but as acutely detailed are the ways in which Mukund fails as husband: an inability to stack his used plates in the sink, leave alone wash them; to dust, even as dust starts to pile up since the help is not permitted to come; how he seems to be playing to a seen and unseen gallery; how living with him can be the loneliest thing in the world.

And behind the derisive humour is a tale of sinking, then swimming, that is truly evocative.

Soft Animal
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based author, journalist and manuscript editor.

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