Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama
Keki N Daruwalla
Simon & Schuster
Writers are androgynous creatures, non-binary shapeshifters moving and shaping gender identities through their narratives. Keki N Daruwalla, poet and novelist, has at age 82 written his new novel in the first person feminine.
Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama is told in the feisty voice of Seema Thakur Singh, a young woman married, as the novel unfolds, to an ambitious young deputy secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, Government of India. She speaks to us through a series of confessional letters to her late, much loved mother. Her story is overlaid by the story of her mother, Shail Rathore, as told through her posthumous journals and letters. In a novel where the personal is the political, Seema’s narrative, and lived life, takes us through the fraught political landscape of India, from the days of the Emergency until the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1992. Her mother Shail’s life covers a wider trajectory, in an arc that moves from Uttar Pradesh to Canada, Mexico and California, with the shadows of Lenin and Stalin, Moscow and the Russian revolution, Joe McCarthy and Edgar Hoover, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung, straddling the stage of world politics. He is equally sure footed in sharing Shail’s first person accounts of the Komagata Maru attempting to dock at CPR pier, or of her listening to Lala Lajpat Rai speak at Columbia University.
After a vintage Daruwalla opening with a disquieting dream sequence, we are plunged into Lucknow during the days of the Emergency. The intrepid Seema slaps a policeman while a vasectomy drive is in progress, even as a street vendor and rickshaw puller dart out of a van, to escape being sterilised. Indira Gandhi’s misadventures are brought vividly to life, and played out with the pitch perfect recountal of someone who was surely there, as an eyewitness to history.
Daruwalla has had a distinguished career in the police, and has been chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. His on-ground insights into how the Indian police and judiciary work are given flesh and blood in the endearingly pragmatic figure of Inspector Ambika Singh, who materialises at strategic twists and turns in Seema’s life.
Revisiting the betrayals of the past contour the confusions of the present. Seema’s story is set around Mrs Gandhi’s dystopian India, with the strange prophesies of the young girl Elham casting a prescient spell. Her mother Shail’s journals, as indeed her life, are centred around the enigmatic figure of the revolutionary MN Roy. Both Indira Gandhi and MN Roy are, in their separate ways, presented as meditations on the nature of power, parables on the path of politics.
This is an ambitious novel, a big book, and its ambitions are for the most part fulfilled. Daruwalla’s unblinking scrutiny of some of India’s darkest days, and his evocation of the ideology and consequences of revolution, are visceral and intuitive. There are some structural problems, however, in the flow of the various narratives, as they move across continents and timelines. The deconstruction of world events and the sweep of history overtakes the daily lives of Seema, her husband Nishant, and her band of friends in Lucknow and Delhi. The comments and asides that are worked into the letters are not in the form of intimate communication between a mother and a daughter, however committed they may be to a more just and egalitarian world order. They lack the special and secret intimacy one would want to read and decrypt.
There are passages in the novel where Daruwalla crosses the boundaries of his gender and writes convincingly and tenderly in a woman’s voice. In other segments, the authorial voice, and world view, take over, and Seema’s words — and Shail’s — carry a vocabulary and diction that are utterly masculine in their timbre.
Do men write differently from women? This was a question I pondered while reading this novel. I decided not — a “feminine” and “masculine” voice is essentially a construct of style and sensibility. Yet, as a “female” reader, I wanted more details on these women — what they looked like, what they wore, their sexuality, their physicality and material life in the realm of the feminine.
Seema’s abiding friendships from her childhood and Qaiserbagh days, the network of care and concern that she shares with her childhood friends Shilpa and Rabia — these are the parts of the narrative where Daruwalla pierces the veil and enters the inner courtyard of feminine bonding.
His evocation of Lucknow, past and present, is imbued with nostalgia and insight. And Delhi, the city of bureaucrats and Tees Hazari lawyers, of bureaucrats’ wives and journalists and the ever-seedy Press Club, is presented to us with the masterly insights of someone who has lived in that jungle and survived.
Nishant Singh’s determined and ruthless rise within the bureaucracy, his manipulation of his political masters, is another panel in the tapestry of this remarkable novel where the layers and levels of financial corruption within the system are recounted, with the insider’s ear picking up real and apocryphal stories.
The brooding presence of MN Roy, the enigma of his life, the elusive nature of his relationship with the young Shail, are captured through elusive references and gently limned portraits of home and family, wife, cook and domesticity, juxtaposed with the harsher realities of ideology and its encounter with power. Shail’s meeting with her discredited mentor, many many years later, when he is living incognito in Bombay, moved me to tears, providing as it did a tragic counterpoint to the charged narrative of the earlier segments.
This is an ambitious work. It is also a difficult book, one that yields its many treasures to a reader who enjoys challenges. Like Daruwalla’s previous novels, Pepper and Christ and Ancestral Affairs, it is in its way true to time and place and history, and yet imbued with the enigma of individual lives and trajectories. At a time when history has become a distorted mirror, Swerving to Solitude makes us journey through forgotten pasts with the sure touch of a master.
Gokhale is a writer and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.