Literary Review

Three women, three worlds

The Edge Of Another World; Pepita Seth, Speaking Tiger, Rs.399.  

Pepita Seth has been an Indophile almost all her life. She first came to India in 1970 after reading her great-grandfather’s diary with stories of the Mutiny of 1857. She visited again and again and then set up home in Kerala, writing about the Hindus in the state, their lives, and their rituals. Most people know her photographs, a fabulous documentation of the all-male preserve that is the Guruvayur temple, its customs, architecture, ceremonies, deities and, unforgettably, its elephants. She became a chronicler of shrines in the state and of the colourful, dramatic and elaborate rituals of the Malabar Theyyam. With this journey as her frame, it is inevitable that Kerala finds a prominent place in Seth’s fiction too.

The Edge of Another World is about three women in three different times and places, threaded together in the context of Malabar and its deities. It starts with the story of Sophie, an Englishwoman who must live through the aftermath of her mother’s death. From a small town in Suffolk, she travels to Portugal, where she has a few unusual experiences — a circle of mystical and powerful megaliths pulls her in, while a locked church is unexpectedly open one day, drawing her in to find treasures she had never expected. Looking into the dark chapel, she finds light illuminating religious frescoes that have touches of India — like an elephant and its mahout. And then she finds, in a tiny recess, a small statue of the Virgin Mary with a pregnant belly. And she also discovers two friends: a black dog that stands guard outside the chapel but becomes her guide and guardian as well, and a fairly elderly Indian scholar, Satishan Nambiar, who is in the region researching Portuguese antiques. He becomes a kind of mentor to Sophie. When she goes back to England to sort things out, she has more dramatic revelations to deal with.

The second story is that of Ines, a girl born during an earthquake in 16th century Portugal and almost instantly orphaned by a collapsing wall. With nowhere to go, she grows up in the home of the wet-nurse Joaquina, hearing stories from her foster mother and the slave, Balthazar. When she is of age, Joaquina’s second daughter Leonor would be sent to a convent; and Ines would go with her. In the cloistered sanctuary, the young Ines meets a painter, for whom she becomes an inspiration. She also encounters a man from Malabar during a storm; winds blowing over the turbulent sea take her to India, to the Kerala coast where, like Sophie many centuries later, she encounters a holy spirit. Along the way, she too finds out who she really is.

And then there is a Namboodiri Brahmin girl from Malabar, Thattakutty, who leads a far more sheltered life in her illam. Her beauty and wisdom are not merely a boon, but a curse too, used against her by the people whom she calls her own. Her father abandons her and the village men, who determine all in the patriarchal society of the region, deem her unfit to belong. They are not the villains of the story; the time, place and customs are, since they allow men to do as they wish, condoning hypocrisy and sexual misbehaviour even as they punish women for following the same route.

Oddly, even though Kerala — Malabar in particular — is a prominent motif in all three stories, the location is not what links the women through time. There is a certain deep spirituality that is obviously a part of the author’s own journey, used in closely linking Sophia, Ines and Thattakutty, with a heavy-handed introspection that tends to detract from the otherwise fluid and absorbing narrative. The discovery of self is key, Seth’s own experience and awakening mirrored in the lives of the women she writes about.

What is intensely satisfying is the milieu that she describes, from the performance of Theyyam and the temple ritual to the cultural norms of Malabar in different times and under different circumstances. Put against the backdrop of Seth’s memorable photographs of Kerala and it all comes together. A revelation beyond the boundaries of a single-medium experience, for sure!

The Edge Of Another World; Pepita Seth, Speaking Tiger, Rs.399.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 9:13:43 PM |

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