“The World Belongs to those who are Bringing Tea and Ironing Shirts Too”

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Author KR Meera’s latest translated novel calls into question the objectivity of sight, ponders the validity of vision; when you question your own senses, you cannot but question the way they build the archetypes they build.

Meera says she feels very lucky to have been born and brought up in a patriarchal society, otherwise she would have been oblivious to the world around. | Special Arrangement

KR Meera’s father was a zoologist fond of quoting Darwin, so perhaps it’s not so strange to encounter this line in The Unseeing Idol of Light, her most recently translated novel — “Human evolution had occurred as a result of journeys.” The book centres around the disappearance of Deepti, Prakash’s pregnant wife, who vanishes from a train travelling between Cochin and Calicut. The plot that spins out of this event is an exploration of journeys and what they might do to us. “I’ve imagined being an amoeba, a hydra, the first fish on earth, crawling as a reptile before flying high as a bird to escape from torture,” Meera says. “It was obvious to me right from a very young age that different species evolved into better ones because they wanted to move out of their confinement.”

Meera considers each of her books a “selfie” taken at different points of her own journey. Each one captures a particular mood or revelation. “Don’t ask me where I’m heading or what I’m seeking. There is no answer.” This novel was written when she was 36, an age she describes as dangerous and disillusioned. In Malayalam, the title is Netronmeelanam, a tantric term, which refers to the eye-opening ritual for the idol. A statue only becomes fit to worship after five rituals of bringing the senses to life. It is this coming to life, this ability to see or not see that Meera examines in the book, along with ideas of justice and gender.

“I wish you could read Malayalam,” Meera tells me. We were speaking about the complications of translation some months ago at a literary festival in Mumbai. In person, Meera is jovial and energetic. We sat on a couch in the author’s lounge eating puffs and drinking coffee. There is a calmness about her that is nowhere to be seen in her fiction. In her books, she is fierce and unyielding. “Language is geological,” she says. “The words it possesses have much to do with the nature in which it exists.” She believes her work is best understood in Malayalam, particularly this novel because many of the dialogues use Malayalam idioms connected to sight, but she believes her translator, Ministhy S Nair, rose to the challenge admirably.

The Unseeing Idol… is a gripping, defiant novel, filled with mirroring symbols and themes. Violence underpins everything. Violence done to self (suicide), violence done to others (rape). “There is no true writing without some from of violence,” Meera says. “All writers give back to the world what they owe it.” But this is also a story of love, inspired by the experiences of her mentor Ramachandran Unnithan. Meera recounts how her teacher and his wife had gone to a wedding and when they came home they went into the bedroom. He went to the washroom and when he came out, his wife was lying dead on the bed. Immediately after his wife died, his vision began to blur. After the seventh day ritual he ventured out of the house and saw things enlarged — a hen appeared to be an ostrich, a milestone appeared as big as a mountain. Meera was intrigued by how love and sight were related to each other. The protagonist of her novel, Prakash, similarly, loses his vision after Deepti disappears, and for a novel so grounded in the real, this Marquezian element of exaggeration lifts it into an ethereal, unsettling level.

 

Patriarchy, inequality and injustice have offered women of our generation great opportunities to understand people and evolve better

 

It also allows her to ask important questions about vision. The clairvoyance of the blind is something that many myths have explored, including the Greek Tiresias, and similarly, Meera asks, what is it we really see with our eyes? And why are our eyes valued over other senses? Why, for instance, in a court of law, are only the eye-witnesses considered reliable? Why is it that you do not see any sightless reporters or news photographers? And why is this related to God? The Hindu idol only becomes ready to worship when the eyes are drawn on its face, which means even God has to see you to be your god.

She subverts these ideas about sight and seeing, as she subverts gender roles. One of the most delightful scenes in the book is when Prakash’s Valiyacchan (mother’s older sister’s husband) shows up after having left his wife for his young Punjabi secretary thirty years ago. He returns as a scruffy hermit with piles, and Valiyamma, who had gone post-abandonment from high-society-lady-with-big-hairdo to dowdy-woman-obsessed-with-TV-shows, sets about making a delicious lunch. When Valiyacchan says, “Paramjeet went out of her way to tempt me,” Valiyamma coos sympathetically. When Valiyacchan says he was scared to return but wanted to apologise, she laps it up. Just when you think she’s going to let him back in, she hands him his bag and asks him to leave. When Prakash asks why she bothered to make his favourite uniappams for lunch, she says, “I was performing the sacrificial rites… the customary rites of death meant for a man who passed away thirty years ago.”

The women in the novel range spectacularly from perfect daughter-in-law to deranged woman mad with desires. “I feel very lucky to have been born and brought up in a patriarchal society,” Meera says, “otherwise I would have been oblivious to the world around. Patriarchy, inequality and injustice have offered women of our generation great opportunities to understand people and evolve better. Writing is the only way I can resist and defeat the notion of power in the world we live in.” And for all the challenging of archetypes Meera does, there are many nods to tradition as well, because, “The world belongs to those who are bringing tea and ironing shirts too. For my generation it has been and still is an inevitable stage of natural evolution. For my daughter’s generation I hope it wouldn’t be so. But even if they don’t have to bring tea or iron shirts, they still have to deal with notions of power, disguised as love or liberation.”

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