Opaque portrait of a woman

Dibyajyoti Sarma
Sunday, 20 August 2017

You pick up the book and read the blurb and you are not sure. Are you being subjected to another sprawling tale of a Bengali family? The domineering mother-in-law has passed away and now, the elderly Bahu, Mrs C of the title, can be her own person. You expect the novel to delve into a series of flashbacks.

But Sankar, in her first novel for adults, leaps ahead by introducing Mrs C’s divorced daughter Sohini and her live-in partner, Omar. The result is not just subversion of expectations, but something rarer, a politically aware novel of ideas.

You pick up the book and read the blurb and you are not sure. Are you being subjected to another sprawling tale of a Bengali family? The domineering mother-in-law has passed away and now, the elderly Bahu, Mrs C of the title, can be her own person. You expect the novel to delve into a series of flashbacks.

But Sankar, in her first novel for adults, leaps ahead by introducing Mrs C’s divorced daughter Sohini and her live-in partner, Omar. The result is not just subversion of expectations, but something rarer, a politically aware novel of ideas.

The rather short book (considering the big ideas it crams inside it) is set in four time periods — 2002, 2005, 2012 and 2015-16 (years preceding major political events in the country), shuttles between Kolkata and Delhi and is narrated by Mrs C and her daughter. 

Yes, there’s a rich Bengali family and some inconvenient truths, but Sankar is more interested in observing how larger political issues affect personal equations. The author shies away from giving a clear answer, but finds occasions for her characters to engage in healthy debates, sometimes even at the expense of the narrative flow.

In the end, however, what stays with you is not the political debate, but the compellingly opaque character of Mrs Anita Chatterjee. As she begins to narrate her story, she begins to lose her memory, an affliction, which is poignant in itself and allows the novelist to construct a fascinatingly unreliable character — a representation of who Mrs C thinks she is. 

Everything else in the novel is devoted to highlight the aspects of Mrs C, the ideal daughter, daughter-in-law, wife and mother. But as you look close, everything appears hazy. While Mrs C herself appears to be an unreliable narrator (did she really decide to kill her mother-in-law by conveniently forgetting to give her the medicines?), Sohini, with very different outlook to life, doesn’t seem to understand her mother at all. In terms of narrative trope, this is delicious stuff, and Sankar’s fast-paced writing keeps you hooked until the end, which, offers a wickedly, charming twist.

Talking about ideas, the novel deals with several weighty issues — personal vs relationships, relationships vs ideology.  The execution of them is not always perfect; you are left expecting more, but Mrs C Remembers is a rare gem of a novel which devotes the entire length of it in developing a character that is fascinatingly easy to explain, yet frustratingly opaque.

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