‘Gita Viswanath in this novel seems to be re-stating Milan Kundera’s oft-quoted line as “The struggle of woman against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”’, writes Kamalakar Bhat.
All stories are in a way rearrangements of memories. Stories are not only struggles of memories against forgetting but also against suppression. Or alternately, as Marquez puts it “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” According to Tridib, a character in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, if one doesn’t tell one’s stories then one only becomes enslaved by someone else’s story. It seems, that is also the reason why the twin protagonists in Gita Viswanath’s debut novel Twice It Happened come around to tell the stories that were secreted away in the humdrum of everyday life and the neat folds of normal existence. Their stories are therefore at once an evocation of those norms and of their subversions. They delineate the elaborate social and cultural conventions that endow a sense of normativity and normality to the practices of a community whether within the confines of caste or army. Thus the two fountains of stories in this novel – Nagamma and Chitra – live out their secrets and eventually decide to unravel it by choosing Jyothi, a teacher of stories, as their medium.
Twice It Happened is thus a novel about stories and storytelling. Jyothi, the narrator, is not apparently very eager to tell the stories, steeped as she is in her own existential preoccupations. But, she becomes a medium for stories that insist upon being told. Such is the force of the suppressed tales! And, force it has to be, because even death doesn’t stop the storytelling! Nagamma comes in the form of the spirit during her thirteen-day journey to the other world after her death and insistently tells her stories to Jyothi. This reluctant medium of narratives has no option but to be the recipient and receptacle of Nagamma’s stories. Nagamma’s stories have one secret: of an extra-marital mating that may have given Nagamma her son. The beauty of Gita Viswanath’s novel is that she doesn’t make this single secret the be all of Nagamma’s story. Nagamma in fact is portraying a whole way of life including details of customs, recipes, kinship practices, period-specific lifeworld of the women from the Telugu-speaking upper caste society. The generational narrative of Nagamma thus reveals the fine filaments of community life that weaves a web of family life reining the woman in.
The second strand of the novel is the story of Chitra who happens to be a cousin of Jyothi, our narrator and a niece of the first protagonist Nagamma. This mechanism of having three women from a single family being the focus of the novel facilitates coherence. Both Nagamma and Chitra communicate the stories to Jyothi in absentia. While Nagamma does so after her death, Chitra adopts the epistolary technique – of course its modern version too, the email. If Nagamma’s stories are located within the traditions of South Indian Telugu-speaking Brahmin community, those of Chitra are located in a different kind of community – the army. The author clearly establishes that both inhabit privileged spaces and opens a crack for a subtle critique of the procedures and practices of these communities. Gita Viswanath is not forcing a political stance and hence she doesn’t insist on characterising these spaces in a monochromatic negativity. Her subtle narration makes for a rich possibility of readings. Chitra’s story takes us across various states and introduces the lifeworld of army wives. More significantly, it presents to the readers the inscrutable aspects of human relationships where love can lead individuals to undermine the social taboos. Chitra is so committed to her love, though outside marital relationship, that she, like Chekov’s Nora, pushes the borders of familial and social norms to assert individual aspirations.
Twice It Happened presents two strong women characters in Nagamma and Chitra. There is a limited parallelism between their stories, though there are vast differences between them in terms of the scale of their choices. Nagamma’s story acts out its subversive quotient secretly whereas in the case of Chitra it is very public, very conscious and very deliberate. The male characters in the novel, though central to the lives of its women, are not as significant. Gita Viswanath is a fine painter of people with brisk and dense sketches. She is also alive to the need for a narrative to be swift moving. She manages to fill her novel with dense details, exquisite turn of phrases, quick action, a web of stories and lively characters, making the novel thoroughly enjoyable.
Gita Viswanath’s novel has an underlying political theme – subversion. Her characters are essentially rebels against the burden of habits, taboos, customs and rules that regulate and constrain individuals. Storytelling in fact is a rebellion against being silenced. Gita Viswanath in this novel seems to be re-stating Milan Kundera’s oft-quoted line as “The struggle of woman against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
It is to the credit of the author that she doesn’t spoil the novel with too many juggles and experiments in narrative technique even though Nagamma’s narrative has an innovative touch. By far the reader is not distracted by the mechanisms of storytelling. Fluent storytelling, eschewing posturing, intense empathy, subtle irony are the hallmarks of Gita Viswanath’s novel. Twice It Happened is a novel that impresses with its sophisticated narration, deft detailing of people, places and practices, engaging action, light humour and inherent compassion. Penny’s Worth.
Kamalakar Bhat is an English lecturer and a poet, translator.