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Language and other maladies: Review of Sumana Roy’s ‘My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories’

Roy’s students might find the stories rewarding, but to other readers they might sound just pretentious.

Roy’s students might find the stories rewarding, but to other readers they might sound just pretentious.   | Photo Credit: Supreet Sapkal

The enactment of literary discourse in fiction might be an interesting exercise, but Roy is not quite able to pull it off

Sumana Roy’s penultimate work was a volume of poetry, Out of Syllabus, which, as the title suggests, hit out, not in so many words, of course, at the limitations of pedagogy — the bell might toll the end of a lesson in a particular subject in the classroom and the start of another, but outside the classroom all subjects overlap and watertight academic ‘streams’ merge into an ocean of knowledge. Roy is a professor — she speaks from experience.

Ironically, reading her latest collection of short stories, I felt I was locked up in a classroom and was being pelted with literary theory dressed up as fiction, because the teacher seemed to have decided that a story is the best way to make lesser mortals like her students grasp complex theory.

It’s not an unexciting exercise per se — Oxford professor Iris Murdoch habitually pumped philosophy into her novels and the result was dizzying most often — but Roy, unfortunately, is neither here nor there.

A little lifeless

The stories barely touch you because the characters are diligently acting out some existential/ linguistic conundrum — they flop like lifeless puppets once the laboured performance is over. The endings are Roy’s concession to the conventional story, which must head somewhere. Roy’s subject matters — mostly unstructured cogitations of given characters — hardly warrant the kind of neat closures she gives them.

As to theory, a quote from Barthes — “I have a disease; I see language” — is the epigraph to the book and you know where this is headed. Only, it is much more rewarding to read Barthes than plod through Roy’s stories pointing out the linguistic structures that underlie all that we think, see or feel.

In ‘The New Provincials’, an ambitious English professor from small-town Bengal realises, as he commutes to work on a public bus, that his surrounding linguistic reality better supports his middle-class mother reading Lakshmi’s panchali every Thursday than George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke discovering that her provincial life in Middlemarch makes a mockery of her bookish idealism; in ‘Literature and Other Ailments’, the narrator cribs, “Literature turned me into a complainant, and it took away the joy of surprise and unexpectedness from my life”, only to find out that lived life is far less dramatic than literature would have us believe.

Language and other maladies: Review of Sumana Roy’s ‘My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories’

Roy’s Eng-lit students might find the pieces rewarding — if only because they will resonate with what they have been taught by her in the classroom — but for the rest, the stories might sound just pretentious. Yes, there is humour, as in the death certificate that reads: “Unnatural death caused by trying to avoid natural death” (‘Untouchability’); some stories, notably ‘The Mountain Disease’, with its subtle dismantling of the parochialism afflicting even so-called educated groups, are insightful. But they are hardly enough to keep you going.

Roy is a poet, as is the mother from the titular story. The mother here was a famous poet in Hindi — her poetry in translation (presented with apologies for what must have been lost in the process) speaks for Roy, I suppose. It might give you a few hiccups: “They are sending guards, I know,/ To prove that I stole the wombs you’d lent to the papaya tree...” As might some of her sentences: “It has begun to seem slightly artificial — this time, this borrowed time, like time borrowed from life for living a vicarious life inside a cinema hall, that is not like living inside a painting, chained by the frame” (‘The Seventh Day’).

Editor missing

Andrew Marvell’s oft-quoted lines to his coy mistress: “But at my back I always hear/ Times wingèd chariot hurrying near” is attributed to Shakespeare in the same story. All of which makes one wonder: did this book go to press without an editor ever having looked at it?

Book blurbs are infamous for being hyperbolic. But this one’s is plain misleading: “These are stories that will make you hide your tears and reach out for someone’s hand as you read them, or phone a loved one to share the delicious humour, or underline sentences that you’d like to return to.” Was it meant for some other book?

anusua.m@thehindu.co.in

My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories; Sumana Roy; Bloomsbury India; ₹499

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 9:51:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/language-and-other-maladies-review-of-sumana-roys-my-mothers-lover-and-other-stories/article30820956.ece

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