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Small Remedies

Small Remedies - Shashi Deshpande This was quite an interesting departure from my normal reading. This is literary fiction by an author who is apparently very well known in India, but practically unknown in the West. If marketed here, it would probably be called "women's fiction," because Small Remedies is a very introspective first-person narrative by a woman who has lost her son, and as she traces the histories of two other influential women in her life, while also unveiling all her other formative experiences, she ties a multitude of narrative threads together as a way of putting a coda to her grief and loss. It's the sort of story that, let's be honest, will appeal to women more than men, not just because it's mostly about women, but because it's all about feelings and interpersonal relationships and all that. There is not really a lot of plot here; rather, there are a bunch of different characters, all of whom have some relationship to one another, some very significant, some only tertiary, and the book is about the unveiling of each one's story and how it relates to the central theme, of dealing with memories, and loss, and the things people give up.

One of the things that made this book more interesting to me was of course the fact that it's 100% Indian fiction — although written in English, it's by, for, and about Indians. Shashi Deshpande offers no concessions to the non-Indian reader, she simply assumes that you are familiar with all the cultural references she describes, just as an American author will talk about AP classes and private health insurance and Top 40 radio and football and deer-hunting under the assumption that an (American) audience knows exactly what all those things are and how they work.

To draw an analogy, you can always tell a non-American author writing about America because there will be a positive obsession with guns, like the average American has a gun collection sufficient to arm a small militia and the most important political issue on our minds is always the 2nd Amendment. (Now in fairness, that does describe some Americans, but certainly not the vast majority.) Likewise, a non-Indian author writing about India will almost inevitably put an elephant somewhere in the book, and Ghandi must be mentioned at some point, and we'll get helpful infodumps about Hinduism and Indian food and clothing, etc. Whereas Deshpande just mentions dhotis and pithla, etc., as casually as an American author will mention t-shirts and hamburgers. Not Indian, don't know what pithla is? You can go Google it if you feel the need, but the story flows on quite understandably even if you don't recognize all the terms.

Anyway, Madhu, the first-person narrator in this slow, carefully arranged book, grew up in a single-parent household with a father who was a small-town doctor. Having had no real female influence in her life as a child, she subjects her relationships with other women as an adult to a great deal of examination; one senses, trying to figure out how her own lack of a mother figure has changed her. Madhu is a journalist and a writer, and she's been sent to write a biography of a famous singer, now quite old and in failing health, who has had a somewhat tumultuous and scandalous life and career.

From the moment Madhu arrives at the home of Savitribai Indorekar, there is something unspoken hanging between them: Madhu was a childhood friend of Savitribai's daughter, a deceased daughter whom the singer has practically excised from her life, a daughter who likewise did her best to rewrite her own life story to eliminate her mother and her stepfather from it. It's implied throughout Madhu and Savitribai's conversations that Savitribai knows who Madhu is, from the latter's childhood hanging around the singer's house, and knows what is being unsaid and unasked, but will Madhu ever go there?

Tied into the story also are Madhu's memories of her aunt, Leela, her first mother figure, who looked after her after her father died. And finally we get to the real linchpin of the story, the tragic death of Madhu's son, Adhit, and how this caused her to try to redact her own memories, and how it affected her already strained marriage with Adhit's father.

There are many personal revelations in the book, some of which almost have the character of "plot twists," but really, there isn't much of a plot, just a narrative, and the thing the reader is waiting for until the end is closure, for all of these people. Will Savitribai ever acknowledge her daughter? Will Madhu make peace with her loss? Will she and her husband reconcile?

The undercurrents of social tension tying both the larger and the personal stories together add verisimilitude to the novel: they aren't what the book is about, but they are there. Savitribai was a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. It was an act of terrorism (the precise cause and culprits are never explicitly stated) that killed Madhu's son. The "climax" of the novel is Savitribai's Muslim protege singing at a Hindu temple, causing threats of unrest and violence. But these things, again, are not the point of the story, just themes tying everything together.

I can understand what she's saying, even if I don't know all the words. Obediently the boy lets himself down in a namaskar at my feet, the skinny body straight as an arrow, the scapular bones, like two wings on either side, slanted like those of a bird in flight, the newly-shaved head giving him the look of a fledgling bird. He gets up swiftly in almost the same movement. I touch him on the head.

What do I say? Ayushman bhava? Chirayu bhava?

May you live long. But what blessing can contend against our mortality? Mustard seeds to protect us from evil, blessings to confer long life — nothing works. And yet we go on. Simple remedies? No, they're desperate remedies and we go on with them because, in truth, there is nothing else.