“Shinie manipulates the complex relationship between the victim and the victimizer more on the plane of Jacobean tragedy,” Anamika writes.
"You do not do, you do not do
Anymore, black shoe
In which I've lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe, or Achoo.
Daddy, I've had to kill you
You died before I had time -
Sylvia Plath, "Daddy," Collected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1992)
As a sequel to Plath, one could read Shinie Antony's The Girl Who Couldn't Love as a story of an absolutely brilliant and equally neglected girl child who didn't just consider killing her father, but actually killed him. At the instruction of a psychotherapist, Plath had killed her father only metaphorically. Struggling to get exorcised out of a damning influence, she merges the image of her biological father with that of Hitler who incidentally called himself `the Dad of the German race.' She subjectified and domesticated the violence of history and felt deeply identified with the war victims. That was her way of doing it. Shinie manipulates the complex relationship between the victim and the victimizer more on the plane of Jacobean tragedy.
This kind of importunate and macabre, gothic and placental treatment of love and death is natural to many such sensitive people who are doomed to go on living with splinters of shattered images, especially of parents. Brimful of their own pains and passions, sometimes they seem to be leaping out of their skins in their almost demonic thirst for love, life, art and intensity. And in certain cases, they enact their revenge tragedies through misplaced violence. Violence in any case is a spear pointed at both ends, and immeasurable is the angst of daughters whose love-hate relationship with their larger-than-life, superbly talented and equally demonic fathers.
Such a father drives, Roo, the protagonist of the novel to the point of killing not only him, but also a lover who turns out to be a half-brother, son of the same Eedee, whom Roo's father had adopted out of seeming compassion, but eventually used as his sex-slave. The plot is complex and so is the treatment, bubbling with profound insights into the pathology of crime stemming from childhood trauma. Almost Dostoevskian is the vision of this little book which also underlines the irony so powerfully staged in Muktibodh's great poem, "The Void":
The void inside us has jaws,
Those jaws have carnivorous teeth,
Those who cross my path
Find this void
In the wounds
I inflict on them.
They let it grow,
Spread it around,
Scatter it and give it away to others,
Raising the children of emptiness.
The void is very durable. It is fertile.
(Translated from Hindi by Vinay Dharwarkar, from Modern Indian Writing in English Translation. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011).
Basically this is a story of these 'children of emptiness,' whose parents stop even pretending to love each other.
The irony of life is that we know and we know not. All the major tragedies in the world focus on this large disconnect between appearance and reality, as Shakespeare would have put it, and also between the body and the mind, the Muladhara and the Sahasrara as the Yogasastra would put it. Though it is not very fashionable to talk in terms of 'instruction and delight,' the dual motives of art, but I dare take you to the old world charm of deriving lessons from negative examples because the protagonists of this very well-crafted novel, are all deeply soaked not only in Shakespeare, but also in Webster and Ford. They lived through characters in books both classical and popular and they keep reading all the time. Even in moments of intense togetherness, they play hide and seek behind characters depicted in great books. This helps them live beyond the boundaries of a life under-performed.
Love in these times of public and private break-downs, seems a more distant proposition than it was in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, which the novel keeps referring to, because we do not even have faith to hold on to. Lacking in faith in all kinds of father figures, all kinds of institutional heads, leaves us floating like spiritual orphans. Early in life, the Rudra in Rudrakshi (Roo) comes out to play basically because of the deep disjoint that happened between body and mind, her body and Ruh (`soul' in Urdu, that her nickname Roo echoes). This sudden leap from the meadow of innocence to the cave of experience happened when she was younger than the chimney-sweep in Blake. One can smile and smile and be a villain. One can go on quoting passages after passages from Shakespeare and yet be a maniac. Humankind cannot bear too much reality. Some make-believe to hold on to, is a must. Shattered images often leave one in a not so comfortable company of splinters. Our inbox gets filled with messages like this, yet we go on reading; so powerful is the rendition and so delightful the flow of dialogues.
The world of Jacobean tragedy was one of whispered intrigue in dimly lit corners, of revenge and counter-revenge, an accidental slaughter, a world where advancement at court depended on "success as bawd." We also live in similar circumstances, all the time witnessing pander-figures being promoted to the status of anti-heroes. So deep is Shinie's inter-textual dialogue with Jacobean tragedies; but quite unlike them, her images drawn from nature are quite refreshing. Though the action is mostly confined to rooms and often to hours between midnight and dawn, her connect with nature, especially the cawing crow, is complete.
Roo is fascinatingly sharp-tongued and witty. And the push and joy of her language makes her a classic illustration of the libidinal/semiotic thrust in women's language that Helene Cixous, Irigary and Kristeva keep referring to as the springboard for subversive thought. For example,
“At some point his jokes will fall flat and my introvert ways will begin to pall. I will become too silent and he will be an out-of-work clown. That is just the way with men and women, the razzle and the dazzle and the empty pockets, with no more unending silk ribbons to pull out. And really, one part of me waited almost eagerly for that moment, that first dying of the ardent light in his eye, the first curling away of his fingers from mine.... I am a woman, any woman, it is the survival of the species thing, suddenly lusts....”
“We make heroes out of ordinary people when we are in need of a hero, not the other way around.”
This review was originally published in Sahitya Akademi's bimonthly journal Indian Literature, and has been republished with permission.
Anamika is the author of six national award-winning poetry collections and four novels. Her inspiration comes from the folk and the metaphysical strains of the rebel bhakta poets. She is a professor in the Department of English in Satyawati College, Delhi University.