Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A novelist of domestic tragi-commodies


In her 1946 novel, The River,  the author, Rumer Godden,  describes her heroine's response to writing a poem she knows to be good: "It felt alive, as she did. She felt alive and curiously powerful, and full of what seemed to her a glory."

They are hallmarks of her own writing. She said she often came to the precipice of melodrama or unalloyed sentiment but stepped back. She stepped back into a clear eyed vision of how people relate to one another within the microcosm of families or enclosed communities (two of her novels are famously set  in convents) and between cultures - most commonly that of the English and of India. 

One of her favourite patterns is of the transition between childhood and adulthood, when an event and its unfolding consequences, often tragic, propel a child into a new maturity. She has a mastery of depicting how children see the world and how they oscillate between their own and an adult's world, learning to comprehend.

In 'Breakfast with the Nikolides', Emily, twelve, confronts her mother's failure to tell her the fate of her dog (it has had to be put down because of the possibility of rabies). Her mother is emotionally fragile, estranged from her husband, and in fear of India. She chooses the path of white lies and deception and is greeted by the imperious hostility of her daughter's refusal to know anything but the truth. It is Emily's moment to stand out alone against the possession of her mother and she does and breaks it.

The irony is that this unfolding domestic drama, amplified only in their own eyes, unfolds against the background of both a misunderstanding between the two cultures (English and Indian) in which the Indian character, Anil, has, in fact, been bitten by the dog and contracted the deadly hydrophobia.

It has many other Godden trademarks - servants who follow their own will, lyrical descriptions of the festivals of Hinduism, the celebration of poetry (Anil is an aspiring poet) and a limpid description of its nurture and a quiet insistence on a reality within and beyond all things that is divine and 'bigger' than any one tradition. They may point, they do not encompass.

I love her novels: starting from that last point. Her celebration of a mystery, celebrated, experienced that can be incorporated in the poetry of being lived, the rituals of everyday and of everyday religion, but which are always bigger than any formulation. She is, in modern parlance, a universalist that all authentic traditions point towards the sacred yet the sacred eludes all traditions. There is more to be discovered, revealed. It is not perrenialist that any authentic tradition is a full embodiment of the truth for the truth can never be fully embodied in a tradition, only in a living. It is where I stand: in happy, exploratory bewilderment.

I love her compassionate realism. She spares no one insight into their unfolding character, light and shadow both, but they are all embraced in a knowing forgiveness that sees how we come to be and always offers hope of change. As long as we live, our characters are not fixed, change comes from an intimate dance of the fated circumstance and our abiding ability to make it our own, accepting new life through it.

I love too her humour. She laughs with her characters: we carry with us multiple foibles, eccentricities and these colour us and colour our seeing, without stepping into them, with celebration, we never become fully human.

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