Other Waters By Eleni N. Gage, Supernova, Rs 295
Maya cannot afford to forget her rivers. Her rivers keep swelling, eddying round her in mucky, turbid currents, and yet, cleansing her muddled sense of identity. A psychiatrist in New York, Maya Das is an Indian by birth and at heart. The news of the death of her Dadiji acts as a turning point in her life. She is jittery about how her family members in India would accept her steady boyfriend, Scott. After Dadiji’s death, their relationship becomes strained. Maya becomes obsessed with a curse. She comes to know from her father that Parvati, a beggar girl whom Dadiji had once sheltered, had cursed her family. Initially, Maya only half-believes in it, but as misfortunes befall — her father suffers a cardiac arrest; her mother gets a nosebleed and her sister has a miscarriage — Maya is convinced that the curse has started to take its toll. And she resolves to pull out all the stops to weed it out.
She decides to go to India, ostensibly to attend her cousin, Sanjay’s wedding with Amrita, but she actually wants to find Parvati and persuade her to take back the curse. The meeting with Parvati does not yield the desired result. However, while she takes a dip in the Ganges at Benaras, a statuette of the goddess Lakshmi “washes up”, and she believes it to be a propitious omen which says that the curse has been lifted. Maya dates Raki, Amrita’s cousin, but realizes that this relationship, too, promises little. She walks out on Raki, but to what end, she wonders. She strives to find an answer, and takes a dip in the filthy Hudson. This ablution cleanses the ‘curse’ of her confounding, self-defeating sense of identity.
In her web page, Eleni N. Gage writes, “I’m obsessed with the idea that we’re all trying to connect to each other and our surroundings — to find our place in the world.” Her debut novel, Other Waters, epitomises this existential quest. Maya is repeatedly caught up in a Sartrean ‘bad faith’ that makes her negate her former selves.
Gage uses an aphorism by Heraclitus as the epigraph: “You could not step twice into the same river/ For other waters are ever flowing on to you.” These “other waters” do not flow unidirectionally, but swap and swirl about, cleanse yet clutter. At magical moments. they churn out epiphanic truths from the depths of perception. After her dip in the Hudson, Maya feels, “It wasn’t just losing Scott, or Raki, that made her feel so weary. It wasn’t the absence of love at all, but the abundance of it, the suffocating feeling of having so many people want so much for her...”. This reminds one of Rilke’s advice: “This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness.” The transcontinental waters that Maya steps into teach her to ‘trust’ her ‘heaviness’ of existence so that she may learn to fly.
Other Waters impresses as a debut novel. Gage’s well-honed novelistic skill is seen in her descriptions; for instance, that of daybreak at Benaras: “The sun rose and soon pink and gold light illuminated everything, and the shadows along the river became visible, real people. The dhobis were washing clothes, a young man, ankle-deep in the water, had his hands pressed together in prayer, a girl was brushing her teeth, and an old man lovingly bathed his water buffalo.” This is compellingly cinematic and redolent of the vintage India. Gage is not Indian, but she knows India commendably well.
However, the novel is not free from blemishes. Some stereotyping about India is discomfortingly evident. One wonders why Maya has to be so obsessed with the curse. Is it because Gage wants her to embody the ‘spirit’ of India and to manifest an ‘indisputable’ Indian identity? The exploration of Maya’s angst, too, leaves something to be desired.