Book: The Other Side of Light
Author: Mishi Saran
Price: Rs 250
The title of Mishi Sarans new book calls to mind that Urvashi Butalia classic,The Other Side of Silence. Butalia tells the story of people especially women who lived through Partition. The Other Side of Light takes the leap into fiction. But Sarans lead character,Ayesha,is born in the 1960s and lives through much of Indias recent history. In both,womens lives are shaped by historical events. There the similarity ends. The Other Side of Light might have started out as a broad-canvas novel,following Ayesha from childhood to adulthood against the churn of post-Independence India.
It revises these ambitions halfway through.
All the events of Indias recent past make a cameo appearance,but Saran shows a diminishing engagement with each of these events. In the 1970s,Ayeshas fiercely political mother protests against the Indira Gandhi government. During the riots of 1984,a Sikh family friend cuts off his hair to hide his identity. Ayesha also loses her boyfriend,the romantic Kabir,to insurgency in Assam,where he had been doing unspecified good work. When the Bombay riots happen,all Ayesha can do is occasionally dash out to take pictures of violence before being whisked away for a drink by her new suitor. By the end,it is mostly giggling under the sheets. History is an excuse for romance,really. It is inexplicable why Saran,who has been a journalist and written non-fiction on historical themes,should fall prey to such tokenism.
Speaking of tokenism,as in every good bildungsroman,girl meets world in the customary year abroad. Ayesha rebels against her parents and goes to Switzerland to study photography and find herself. So we are treated to several passages of scenic beauty accompanied by reflections on photography,heavily borrowed from Susan Sontag. Ayesha is entitled to her youthful ardour,but must she find her new photography teacher pale in an unhealthy kind of way,not just in a white mans way? And must she be drawn to mocha-skinned Miki for the shallowest and most powerful of reasons we had similar colouring? This experience of the West,and such reactions,could reflect the racial and cultural anxieties of an older India Ayesha would have been there in the 80s,after all. Presented without this inflection,it becomes uncomfortable to read today. At times it reminds you of the unleavened jingoism of certain Bollywood films.
In fact,much of the novel could be scripted for Bollywood. In one interview,Saran even mentions that she would cast a relatively unknown actress or someone who does interesting films like Konkona Sen in a movie based on her novel. It certainly has elements of a good old-fashioned Bollywood flick the melodrama,the cloying sentimentality,the luxurious grief,which of course does not get in the way of a happy ending,and the lavish metaphors. Ayeshas story is woven with those of her three college friends. After each story is neatly tied up and they find their respective happy endings,Ayesha escapes into hers. It is an escape from history and from complexity. A novel of lofty ambitions has finally turned into a wish-fulfilment fantasy.