When I was reading Lakshmi Kannan’s The Glass Bead Curtain, all hell was breaking loose in Tamil Nadu. Seldom have I experienced real time being so much at odds with fictional time. The urge to juxtapose the novel against the current events was compelling because it is sequestered within the interiors of Brahmin homes of the old Madras Presidency of pre-Independence India, while what was happening in present-day Chennai was out on the roads and beaches. But by and by, I found out that that was not the case, actually. If at all the novel has to be connected to the present, the reader might experience more of seamless fusion than rupture, at the conscious level.
The Glass Bead Curtain is a novel within a novel, with writer-character Shailaja shaking off a bout of writer’s block and starting a novel on Kalyani, born into a conservative Tamil Brahmin family. Kannan explores the meta-fictionality deftly, weaving complex patterns not only between the parallel lives of Shailaja, the writer, and Kalyani, the written, but also between conflicting zeitgeists of the writer’s time in the present and of the past imagined by her.
Shailaja’s novel ends in 1985, when a woman in her childhood was customarily deprived of education and could not have written her own name, could by then “have written all that she wrote.” It would take three more years for Tamil Nadu to get its first woman chief minister, VN Janaki. And for the next three decades, another woman, Jayalalithaa, towered over the state, both in person and in cutouts. The disconnect between such supreme female domination on one side and the slow oppression of female characters in the novel is only apparent, but as the novel unfolds, it brings out the core of women’s plight, and there things haven’t changed much.
In her parental home, Kalyani was a happy child with, among others, an inspiring paternal aunt, Athai, a witty Irish tutor, Susan O’Leary, who provided her both linguistic and life skills, and a loving father. Much to the anger of O’Leary, the father married Kalyani off when she was a child. After attaining puberty, she moved to her husband’s house, where her mother-in-law actively discouraged “inauspicious” female education.
Another reason to pick on Kalyani was that she was taller than her husband. Superior male height is such a given that, unsurprisingly, the issue seldom pops up in fiction, as it does in this novel. The girl was deprived of food through religious fasts so that she wouldn’t grow taller than her husband. She did pip him, though, and being a tall girl, Kalyani’s wish was to become a badminton coach. Kannan has spotted well the rare sport in which Indian women excel. With the help of her husband, Kalyani did achieve what she wanted.
In the end, it is a sad novel. Kalyani’s success owes much to her husband. This is a bit of thin ice, for votaries of political correctness would have loved to see her pulling ahead by herself. In the novel, the couple grow on each other, and their relationship naturally progresses to transform her goal to their shared goal, but, it being understood that her success owed much to male instrumentality. In Kannan’s novel, every aspect of religion, custom, society and culture are shown to be working against women. Yet, it is peopled with strong, spirited women, who are at times subversive, and, at other times, take things head on.
The superwoman politician who lorded over Tamil Nadu politics could well have been a male construct, yet men jostled to fall on their knees before her. The all-male sport of jallikattu is an unabashed exhibition of machismo, yet there was a fair sprinkling of women in the protests against its ban. In the novel, too, the male ideology is evangelised more by women. The Glass Bead Curtain once again emphasises that when it comes to peeling onion skins off reality, the novel remains the most appropriate genre.
Kannan writes poetry and fiction in Tamil under the pen name Kaaveri, and she had earlier translated her works into English herself. This is her first English novel. Though bilingualism is common among Indian writers, very few, like Kiran Nagarkar or, now, Kannan, venture to write in English. What is feared to be lost, and rightly so, is the rich dialects, the cadence of speech rhythms and the immediacy of their first languages. Kannan tried to circumvent this by generously sprinkling the novel with Tamil words, along with a long glossary and occasional parenthetical explanatory intrusions into the narrative. As a non-Tamil reader, I confess that I found this novel more readable than Kannan’s own translated works.