Name: The Unseeing Idol of Light
Author: KR Meera
Translated by Ministhy S
Publication: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 499
In many ways, a KR Meera novel is great material for a typical soap opera. Picture this: A couple talks about being able to buy a TV one day. The next day, the pregnant wife goes missing and the man goes blind from the trauma, comprehensively ruling out any chance of them watching a TV programme together. In The Unseeing Idol of Light, as with many of her other works, Meera makes use of this narrative excess to lay bare and explore the capricious, toxic nature of deeply-felt emotions.
There is a formula to many of Meera’s works. The central characters are mostly irrational, acting on their darker instincts with little thought for how their actions might affect others. Prakash is a prime example of this. Having gone blind after his wife Deepti disappears, he kicks off the story by visiting a hospital with his friend Shyam to search for her. There, he comes across a patient suffering from an illness of the mind. Both Shyam and Deepti’s father Madhav believe the patient is her, but Prakash disagrees. Instead, he marries his lover, Rajani. This sets into motion a seemingly never-ending chain of events in which the characters repeatedly exhibit their ability to be both destructive and self-destructive.
Despite the overwrought nature of the characters and story, Meera’s ability to provide incisive insight into human nature and emotions remains unfettered. Her examination of blindness is thorough — she weaves it in as plot device, metaphor and philosophical tool throughout the novel. Prakash’s blindness, or lack thereof, as he exhibits in many cases, is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, it later turns out that other characters are perhaps just as blind in their own way, be it Shyam or Deepti’s father, or even Rajani who holds on to desperate hope that Prakash will turn out differently despite many indications to the contrary. Sight, in the literal and abstract sense, truly becomes limited and subjective by the end of the book.
Another pattern to Meera’s writing is the tendency to select one non-human being that is representative of an entire book and its themes. In The Poison of Love, the corpse-eating ants were visceral indicators of the corrosive nature of love. In The Unseeing Idol, the chosen animal is the bat. While certainly not as visceral an image as corpse-eating insects, the bat is a fitting representation of the novel in many ways, least of all in the way Prakash navigates his way through life.
The translation of Meera’s books continues to be strong. Ministhy manages to ensure that the text flows smoothly in English. In this, she is no doubt helped by the fact that the author’s tendency towards excess doesn’t extend to her writing, which is simple and crisp. The elements that cannot be translated well, such as the tendency to call men “chetta” in Malayalam, is instead left intact. This may lead to confusion in terms of the precise meaning, but it quickly becomes evident that it is a term of endearment, which is all the reader needs to know to avoid breaking the flow of the narrative.
The simplicity of writing, however, cannot completely balance the exaggerated narrative, and, after a while, it can be quite tiring. Nothing about the story is implausible, but the sheer blanket of tragedy and toxicity that surrounds these characters certainly pushes at the boundaries. While this is, of course, accompanied by a sharp study of powerful emotions, whether or not that is a worthwhile trade-off will be for the reader to decide.