Demonetisation, the violent ways in which dissent is suppressed, the Hindutva discourse, and increasing intolerance are the issues that provide the background while the detective story-like narration unfurls Satyapriya’s life before the reader. It is a first-person narration that begins with a question – “Have you ever faced an attempt on your life? A pity, if your answer is no!”. The reader, who is hooked, is taken on a journey that swings disconcertingly between the past and the present, to places that are spread across the country.
Satyapriya’s story of the gendered treatment and abuse of women in a patriarchal system is not unique. It is a sad but telling fact of women’s existence in India that the domineering father and the abusive relationships she endures one after the other, are not unique to her. But what makes her story unique and worth listening to, are the ways in which she and her mother fight back against this system that has them in a deadly vice-like grip. This strand of female defiance of a patriarchal order is the gilt edge to what is otherwise a grim story of survival.
Satyapriya’s mother Vasanthalakshmi goes against the stereotypical image of a mother. She is strong, unsentimental, and completely devoid of self-pity. Trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering husband who does not spare even young girls, she nonetheless becomes his primary caregiver when he falls literally and metaphorically. This is not because of any illusion of love but out of sheer magnanimity of spirit. She does not have any sympathy to spare for her daughters’ follies and teaches them the pragmatic way to live and love. In fact, her daughter at one point bemusedly asks her: “Are you a mother, Amma?” Vasanthalakshmi is a testimony to the inner toughness of most women who cannot be beaten back, reminding you that it is not men but women who can be “destroyed but not defeated”.
Meera has said that there are many autobiographical aspects to the novel, and that while Satyapriya “has a lot of me in her, her mother’s quirkiness is borrowed from my own”. ‘Quirkiness’ is perhaps downplaying her ability to survive, laughing defiantly at all the brickbats that are thrown at her. Satyapriya’s observation that her mother “stood for the very idea of freedom”, is closer to the truth. Vasanthalakshmi’s strength is not derived from external factors but from the depths of her own personality, and she is proof that only women’s bodies can be bullied, raped and abused while their spirits can be unbroken.
Satyapriya who is the protagonist is the true successor of Vasanthalakshmi; in a world that has grown more complex and difficult for women, she displays a rare courage of spirit that is simultaneously naïve and reckless. She is the sleuth who attempts to decipher the intricacies of the murder attempts on her life. In the process, she descends into the murky depths of her past, only to arrive at unsavoury truths that manage to shake her to the core.
Truth seems to be at the heart of the novel which has a lot of characters named after “satya”. Satyapriya is the protagonist who is haunted by the shadow of her antagonist, Satyaprakash. Their truths clash in a world where truth does not have any value at all, where it is devalued like the currency notes which were arbitrarily withdrawn. This is where the figure of Gandhi and his adherence to truth become the subtext of the novel. The novel begins with the demonetisation drive that drives out the currency notes with his image, and becomes a quest for personal truth as well as a larger truth that affects the country.
Demonetisation is a leitmotif in Assassin, and the novel, according to Meera, is “my own humble experiment with the Indian political truth”. It spans the length and breadth of a changing India, from the hi-tech city of Bengaluru, the ashram of a self-styled godman in Faridabad to the forests of Niyamgiri. This broad range helps her cover many of the socio-political problems plaguing India at present from caste issues, the Kashmir problem, and religious extremism.
However, this attempt to encompass a plethora of issues threatens to destabilize the structure of the novel. At one level, it can be read as a fast-paced thriller which holds the reader in the grip of a compelling family saga that tells the story of horrible wrongdoings and their just punishment. At another level, it becomes a biography of a nation that is trying to cope with the injustices perpetrated by caste, class and gender. Meera has shown admirable craft in holding these two strands together but unfortunately it falters in places, and the pace flags. The reader is drawn into complicated labyrinths and traversing through the 600-odd pages appears tiresome after a point.
Devika’s translation has done justice to the intense and poetic style of the author. The novel is strewn with references to Malayalam poems, songs and other local references; these are a translator’s nightmare but Devika has managed to overcome these hurdles smoothly.
Mini Chandran is professor, department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Kanpur