The Telegraph
Friday , February 21 , 2014
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Mirror City By Chitrita Banerji, Viking, Rs 499

John Berger, drawing from the writings of the philosopher and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, offers a detailed definition of home in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984). Talking of home as imagined by traditional societies, he writes: “Home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead of the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.” In the modern, migratory world, this notion perhaps survives only as memory, making home a lit-up corner of the mind whose brick-and-mortar counterpart one forever seeks but is fated never to find.

Chitrita Banerji’s protagonist, Uma, has this realization when she listens rapt to a song of Lalon in a village of Bangladesh sometime in the mid-1970s. “[It was] the song in which Lalon had evoked the mystery and beauty of what he called the Mirror City — a place that adjoins one’s home, yet remains forever unreachable. As the song progressed, Uma felt she was travelling along the same path as Lalon. Like him, she too was desperately seeking to cross the ocean that encircled this magic destination, to reach the lover whose presence filled the skies and waters, whose merest touch promised relief from the burning anguish of mortal life. And like Lalon’s, her journey too was doomed. For even the most ardent of desires only produced an illusion of connection. Ultimately, what prevailed between the seeker and the lover was a million miles of separation.” Uma was meant to have a good home — albeit a somewhat unconventional one, because she, a Hindu, had married a Muslim against her parents’ wishes and settled in Bangladesh. But it was all the more her own for being that. Having studied in America, both Uma and her husband, Iqbal, carry with them liberal Western ideals of family life, involving the choice of whether or not to have children, of letting the wife earn, extensive reading, drinking, socializing and, in general, allowing either to have a space beyond their shared lives. But once in Bangladesh, Uma finds her conditioned beliefs — which also make up her mind’s home — being forced to undergo subtle alterations. She feels baffled and betrayed, since the resistance chiefly comes from her erstwhile co- crusader, Iqbal, who suddenly seems to start paying deference to religious and class divides in a country still heady with the euphoria of its own liberation from Pakistan. Bafflement turns into rejection when her married lover, the Bangladeshi “jute king”, Alim Choudhury, who had at first seemed to be an improvement on the husband, proves to be as afraid as Iqbal of the “forces of society and orthodoxy”.

Through Uma’s incomprehension of Iqbal, and her subsequent fury over Alim’s retraction, Banerji portrays a Bangladesh trying to come to terms with its freedom. It is to Banerji’s credit that she does not try to historicize the turbulent years immediately following Bangladesh’s independence, as Philip Hensher had done with wartime Bangladesh in his Scenes From Early Life (2012), to curiously stilted effect. What Banerji does instead is present Uma’s intensely personal experience of a land trying to arrive at its identity through distrust, censorship, imprisonments and assassinations even as it battles natural disasters like droughts and famine. Routed entirely through the consciousness of the hot-headed but warm-hearted Uma, this implicit account of Bangladesh’s growth pangs is as authentic, or inauthentic, as Uma’s experience would allow it to be. Uma tries her best to become one of them, more so because she had her original home on the other side of the border, in Calcutta. Her parents disowned her when she married a Muslim — which is one of the reasons why she desperately wants to accept her husband’s country as her own. Besides, at one level, her Western-educated husband, who had no family to come back to, is as much a stranger in intolerant Bangladesh as she is, however loath he might be to accept that fact: “In this uncaring city, they were both orphans.”

Iqbal’s stubbornness in sticking to his choice in spite of uneasiness, and his wish that Uma mould herself accordingly, may be perceived as a gendered reaction. Indeed, in the repartees between Uma and Iqbal’s social set, between Uma and Iqbal (which are fewer, since Iqbal is not much given to conversation), Uma’s fond, at times furious, outrage at male bullishness provides comic relief in this otherwise sorrowful tale of break-ups and displacement. The brutal conjugal bickerings, which most cooped-up couples would identify with, would remind one of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives at places. But Uma’s response to events, whether in her personal life or in the larger political sphere, is also typically a woman’s reaction, and Banerji celebrates it.

The author, who has several books on Indian cuisine to her name, denotes Uma’s deracination partly through her niggling disappointment in not getting the taste of her Bengali home in the food she is served in neighbouring Bangladesh: “everything tasted different here... She now sampled a piece of chicken coated with spiced poppy-seed paste and smiled, imagining her mother’s reaction. In her family, it was unthinkable that poppy seed could be used for anything but delicate vegetable dishes.” As her marriage falls apart and Iqbal grows increasingly taciturn, one day he suddenly opens a conversation on books — their favourite old topic — which gives Uma that relieving feel of reclaiming beginnings. “It was only a crumb of comfort, but as the famine last year had taught her, crumbs saved lives.” Here, the metaphor of the crumb — of food, which is traditionally the woman’s domain — at once links the personal crisis to the national one and underlines Uma’s response as a characteristically feminine way of coping with disaster.

Not surprisingly, when the crunch comes, it also expresses itself in the language of food, or its perceived lack. After determinedly not allowing any comparison between her husband and lover to spoil her tenuous nest of love with Alim, Uma breaks down at last when he brings the post-coital tea to bed, as is his habit. “The sweet caring of these domestic acts”, while setting him apart from the Bangladeshi or Indian men she has known, puts him in league with her male friends in America. So Uma, the exiled Indian, the reluctantly domiciled Bangladeshi, dares to dream for a flitting moment of having a home in America with Alim, where she would willingly barter some of her individual freedom for a “world that was solely hers”. She longs for the man, who, by being less ‘male’, will be ‘home’ — “nearest to the gods in the sky [the best of America] and to the dead of the underworld [memories of the lost life in Calcutta, which, as memories, are hers beyond dispute]”.

Banerji’s first novel, if not brilliant, is as passionate and honest as its heroine. Its portrait of a decaying marriage is remarkably true to life. As such, it would have further gained in depth if Banerji had, even if intermittently, included Iqbal’s side of the story. His silence, as against Uma’s loquaciousness, sometimes gives the impression that he is enduring it all, especially since he lets out at the end that he had known all along that he was being cuckolded. He had, of course, initiated the collapse by rejecting Uma in bed (in addition, one deduces, to not bringing her bed tea), but no reason is given as to why he grew cold towards her on his arrival in Bangladesh. The doubt that Iqbal might be more sinned against than sinning somewhat dents Uma’s justification for waging her personal war of liberation.