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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Book review: Abandon is honest and emotional about the maternal battle

We find that Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s bleak yet powerful novel sets the responsibilities of motherhood against the urge for creativity

India, West Bengal, Kolkata, Calcutta, Nakhoda mosque. Getty Images
India, West Bengal, Kolkata, Calcutta, Nakhoda mosque. Getty Images

Panty, by the Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha, was the title that launched

Tilted Axis Press in 2016.

Now, 16 months and six books later, the publishers have added Bandyopadhyay’s novel Abandon – again, beautifully translated by Sinha – to their small but perfectly formed, and steadily growing list.

As is noted in the brief biography given at the end of the book, Bandyopadhyay has something of a reputation for “controversial” work. Panty, for example, explored female selfhood via the significance of a pair of leopard-print knickers that the central protagonist – a woman who arrives in Kolkata for an unspecified surgery – finds in the closet of the otherwise deserted room in which she bides her time while she waits. Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise to learn that Abandon is equally – albeit differently – provocative.

Again, the city of Kolkata is Bandyopadhyay’s setting, although her depiction of the urban environment pushes against the grain, very little detail pertaining to the broader setting is actually provided.

Indeed, the hustle and bustle usually found in portrayals of contemporary Indian conurbations is all but non-existent here. Instead, the narrative hones in on the small corner of the city in which the protagonist Ishwari finds herself: a past-its-prime guesthouse, with a lame manager, a kindly, elderly man who takes pity on the young woman who appears on his doorstep looking for somewhere to stay. Despite the initial similarities with Panty – the women in each story arrive in this as-yet unfamiliar city seeking some kind of refuge, the rooms in which they find a degree of sanctity thereafter prove significant in the stories of their lives that unfold –

Abandon soon deviates from that which came before.

Whereas Bandyopadhyay’s heroine in Panty remains nameless, freed, to a certain extent, from the shackles of identity, and thus by extension so too from the wider world around her, the narrator of Abandon is all too tightly tethered to the reality of her corporeal existence.

It is in her protagonist’s struggles against these ties that Bandyopadhyay finds the dramatic conflict that drives her story.

The author’s heroine is a woman torn between two identities, two existences, one that does nothing but chain her to reality, while the other offers the possibility of escape, the like of which her Panty-dwelling predecessor found.

She’s both “Ishwari” – a mother who is responsible for and loves her child, a sweet, 5-year-old boy named Roo – and a novelist looking for nothing else in life but the freedom to pursue her art. It’s the “I” of the novelist who narrates Abandon. “Ishwari is Roo’s mother – the same Roo whose touch is unbearable to me,” she explains.

Having found the struggle between these two different sides to her character unbearable, when the book opens she’s recently fled her old life – about which we learn very little, just the inkling of a memory scattered here and there amongst the story – and Roo with it behind her. Unfortunately, despite his youth – or perhaps because of it – the boy was not so easily forsaken, following his mother to Kolkata, now a tiny albatross with painful, blistered feet coiled about her neck: “The moment a woman gives birth and turns into a mother, her sense of motherhood becomes infinite. Even in the cases of mothers whose arms are emptied soon after delivery, their absent children continue to hover like ghosts all their lives.

“That is why, despite all my efforts, Ishwari’s love and desire has not diminished. Roo’s love has preserved the natural

abundance of tears within Ishwari like a well-protected mound of grains.”

Where are they going? Roo keeps asking his mother as they wander the city looking for somewhere safe to spend the night. Where will they stay?

“Had it been me,” she thinks, “I would have said, ‘Nowhere except a place where my art will find fulfillment’.”

Abandon is one long, raw, brutal, sometimes heartbreaking tug-of-war between motherhood and creativity. “I’m not alone any more,” Ishwari thinks. “I have a heavier burden now, my relationship with the world is stronger.” The writer Niven Govinden has acutely described Bandyopadhyay – who is the author of nine novels and more than 50 short stories, as well as being a newspaper columnist and film critic – as India’s (Elena) Ferrante, and I can’t think of better evidence for this claim than Abandon. Ishwari’s narrative is sustained by the same urgent, heightened – sometimes angry, other times pathetically tragic – propulsion as that which characterizes Olga’s descent into what Ferrante describes as her character’s “absence of sense” in the Italian author’s powerful novel The Days of Abandonment.

So too, the two novels are linked by the lack of sentimentality associated with the depictions of the trials of motherhood and maternal bondage therein; the division between “Ishwari” as character and the narrator as “I” making this distinction between the two contradictory – and as Bandyopadhyay ultimately claims, incompatible – aspects crystal clear.

Shortly after they arrive in Kolkata, Roo falls ill. For days he’s unable to keep any food down, vomiting continuously, his stomach the source of increasing agony. Faced with mounting medical bills, Ishwari has to get a job, and she’s lucky enough to find work as a paid companion to Bibaswan, a wealthy but melancholic man who dabbles in art and is recovering from a terrible accident.

Spending her days with him, she has to leave Roo locked up alone in the rooftop room in which mother and son have made their makeshift home. Her circumstances dictate a cruelty and desperation not often seen in contemporary literature, and are sure to prove shocking for some readers.

But Bandyopadhyay isn’t interested in sugar-coating anything, instead she turns her unflinching eye towards all manner of brutalities and injustices, but with such compassion and humanity that the reader doesn’t want to look away.

Abandon is a bold, important and formidable novel about the demands of life and the responsibilities we have, both to others and to ourselves.

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