If you were to rate a book by the number of pages you’ve folded down for a re-read, then Poile Sengupta’s Inga gets a 5/5. My copy’s thick with folded page-ears, grey with pencil markings. I wanted to quote — and share — exquisite passages, whole pages. (It would have left little room for my thoughts.)
Sengupta tells a compelling story. It is, outwardly, simple: young Rapa, the daughter of a Delhi politician, is spending her holidays in the family’s ancestral home in Kerala with her cousin Inga. The girls grow up. Rapa gets married. She thinks, often, and searches for Inga. And then she finds her. All very regular stuff. But how complex — and riveting — Sengupta makes it!
For a start, everything about the book is layered. The narration itself is part journal, part story, part letters. Then there are the small-town people, with big city ambitions; there’s lusty greed for property, for light-skinned women; and there’s that constantly grating dichotomy, so common in Indians educated in English, rooted in the idiom of one language, but thinking and speaking like another. ‘My schooling taught me to think in English; am I not Indian therefore? Can I not be an Ammu as well as an Emma?’)
It is this ‘Ammu’ and ‘Emma’ ness that makes for the most delicious contrast, the two worlds often colliding, giving rise to much mirth and misery. Take the characters’ names: ‘Great aunt Kuppai’, ‘Professor Seshu’, Sister-in-law Too’, even ‘Inga’ and ‘Rapa’ (whose full forms we get to know much later) are so typical of a people who speak one language in the living room, and another in the kitchen.
Between the covers, Sengupta’s language dazzles: ‘she had small hands, soft and white, and the bangles slipped over them like hoops of sunshine’. Thankfully, she doesn’t just harness pretty images to soften her tale: one that’s as brutal as it’s beautiful. And within that, she creates little pockets of tension, building word-traps, and invites us to watch her characters ache for forbidden loves, fight oppressive fathers and wage backyard women-wars.
One such scene is my favourite. Set in a back verandah that was “damp and smelt heavily of wet lentils and rice, of spinach, curry leaves and curds, of cow’, Rapa takes Inga to find Inga’s mother ‘grinding an enormous quantity of rice and lentils. She sat with her legs on either side of the huge black grinding stone, her faded green sari pulled up to her knees.’ Into this very domestic scene, Sengupta introduces a small storm and the women's reactions are terrific and a little terrifying — Inga’s mother (who Rapa imagined was wearing ‘anger-filled’ diamond nose and ear studs that had ‘declared war’) responds to Rapa’s outburst with a few blazing lines, and a brilliant dismissal. And Rapa’s own mother is stunned into a ‘shuttered’ silence and ‘said nothing’. And, in that silence, you can see the back stories.
But while the men and women and girls were entertaining and their frailities engaging, a few things grated. One was Rapa’s puberty, an unbelievable sequence of a girl spending every holiday in a tradition-bound household not knowing the customs around the period. The other was Rapa’s too-clever stories folded within the story, which seemed a little bit contrived, and tiresome. But these are small quibbles. Because the book kept me interested, and took me places. In the end, I hated many characters, and felt very sorry for others and I was convinced Rapa was real, and the book wasn’t fiction at all. And that, I think, is Sengupta’s real victory.
Inga; Poile Sengupta, Tranquebar, Rs.350