"Listening Now" by Anjana Appachana
Anjana Appachana's first novel, "Listening Now" starts in the 1950's and tells the story of several women and girls, belonging to three successive generations.
It begins in a neighborhood of Delhi, with some events occurring in Bangalore, others in some unidentified locations in India. The child Mallika begins the narrative, introducing us to the cast of characters in the first story. Later, in the second story, when she and her childhood friends Prabha, Mahima and Gauri are in their thirties, she tells us how she sees her story from a woman's perspective.
Mallika tells us that father was dead, and her mother, Padma, taught at college all day, returned home and helped Mallika with her lessons, then took tuition in English for several children in the neighborhood, and worked on her doctorate late at night. Inevitably, she would fall ill and was supported and sustained unfailingly by her neighbors and dear friends, Madhu and Anu. Mallika also tells us of her aunt Shanta who is a second mother to her, and comes to stay with Padma and her twice a year.
Very early, Mallika observes her mother's unspeakable grief ("her deafening silence about her long-ago love"), and into this harsh reality she wove the fantasy of her absent father (whom she calls "Dada") returning to her and her mother. The story that Shanta relates is that Padma married a man outside her community against the wishes of both sets of parents. He later died in a car crash, leaving Padma pregnant and penniless. Padma relates to an insatiable Mallika, over and over again, details of how her parents first met (in a bookshop), their courtship and their conversations. As the novel progresses, the more complicated truth about her relationship with Karan is revealed, replete with missed communications, misunderstandings, malicious acts and curses that come true. Events that transpired many years ago are related from the perspective of several women involved, and we learn how the past has transformed their lives.
Appachana skillfully portrays the familiar rhythms and deeply ingrained patterns of family life in Indian society, where a boy child's needs are perceived by many to be far more important than a girl child's, a perception, that is unfortunately not yet a thing of the past. We catch a glimpse of some of this through Mallika's friend, the outspoken Prabha who is fiercely protective of her mother Anu. Even though Anu endures with remarkable humor the constant nagging of Mataji, her mother-in-law, Prabha speaks out frequently against Mataji's unjust pronouncements. Thus, Prabha boldly provokes Mataji's disapproval for her loyalty to Anu. The ways in which her mother Anu favors her brother Anirudh don't escape the fair-minded Prabha's notice. In one particularly moving scenario, she is deeply hurt to discover that Anu keeps a fast for Anirudh, but not for her.
"Listening now" is written in a simple, fluid style, in keeping with the day to day activities and thoughts of the women whose lives are described. We read on, curious, and slowly the lives and personalities of these women emerge with the chapatis they roll, the cups of tea they brew and the books they read. We get glimpses into their childhood, their coming of age, their sense of humor, the buses they take to work, the unwelcome, crass physical advances they endure, the in-laws they mollify, the husbands and lovers they grow close to or distant from, and the thoughts they have about these events.
The simplicity of Appachana's language almost belies the complexity of the issues that she has chosen to write about. In her reflective, almost conversational style, she explores how a parents favoritism towards a son can deeply affect a daughter, how the simple amenities and freedoms that a young man takes completely for granted are often achieved at considerable cost (emotional and social) to a young woman who yearns for them, how emotional or physical vulnerability displayed in a parent can be deeply affecting to a very young child--how, to a child, while emotional security is still being built up, a parents perceived invincibility is powerfully reassuring.
Mallika's introduces us to the second story by telling us that in the story of each of us is the amalgam of all the stories we have heard, of the lives that our parents and grandparents have lived.
Padma, Anu and Madhu, interdependent and fiercely protective of one another,
forge a close, strong friendship despite inevitable differences in perspective. The gossipy, good-natured Madhu bears her own set of prejudices and stereotypical views. "Bilkul they don't look like Madrasis", she exclaims to Anu when Padma first comes to live near them, accompanied by her sister and brother-in-law. Madhu's indulgent husband anticipates and fulfils her every material need, but is amused by her desire to complete her academic degree, an observation that Madhu interprets generously, but one that troubles Padma considerably more. Their friendly exchanges on these topics and many others reveal the complex choreography of the incompletely expressed hopes and aspirations of many women, the frequent conflicts of personal, familial and societal expectations and how these can affect one's emotional well-being and sense of accomplishment.
Anu, whose training in classical music before she got married is discovered with admiration by Padma, now conducts imaginary conversations in her mind with her husband while performing her daily activities in the kitchen. Unlike in real life, she feels she is articulate in these conversations; she is able to remain calm and logical, and her husband believes her, understands her. He never says in these imaginary conversations, "Your problems are self-inflicted", never replies, "Do you understand yourself?" when she cries out in frustration, "You just don't understand me!" Anu's struggles to manage the household with a very limited amount of money bring to mind Madhu's thoughts on such matters: "But what was managing? Managing was doing without."
Shanta is portrayed with less empathy than the other women are. Appachana seems to have little patience for this tall, beautiful, graceful woman, gold-medallist as well as an accomplished Bhrata natyam dancer, for her overly expressive, emotional ways. Shanta never seem to know when to let an argument rest. She who reached the pinnacle of academic achievement and then chose a life of domesticity after her marriage suffers the weight of all that she has given up, all that she keeps giving and giving to those around her. She is troubled by how well she knows them, how little they know of her and her thoughts. At one point, she is deeply distressed when Narayana, her husband, about whose likes and dislikes she knows so much, presents her with a grey silk saree, unaware that she never wore grey.
Appachana raises many important issues here, subtle or pressing, and doesn't take the easy way out--she doesn't offer a simple ending or easy answers. Despite some humorous parallels with Hindi movies, I was left with a lingering impression of the intertwining of many lives, of how women have relied on close friendships with other women to sustain them through the travails of daily life in parts of society where gender-based stereotypes are entrenched firmly and are being dispelled very slowly.
Even though the story is set in the 1950s, thre are many aspects of it that are distinctly relevant today. Appachana's is a strong voice telling stories about women from a woman's perspective, with compassion, understanding and insight.
This review was published in India West newspaper in 1999.