New Internationalist

The Book Of Shadows

Issue 339

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Fiction / INDIA

The book of shadows
Bitiya is a young university lecturer from Delhi, whose face has been disfigured in an acid attack. Her fiancé had committed suicide by hanging himself and, blaming Bitiya for his death, his sister takes revenge by throwing acid in her face. In this extract from The Book of Shadows by Namita Gokhale, the main character moves between different levels of unexplored consciousness as she tries to grasp her new reality.

In the flat light of my hospital room, of my clean white hospital room which still smelt of construction, my hospital bed which did not creak, this new environment so disconnected from the final moment in that month of insanity – in this room without shadows, I felt contrition. Not regret at Anand’s death – I hadn’t killed him, of that I was sure – and not even anger at his sister’s revenge. No, I felt contrition. Love, touch, joy, passion, the hard reality of my best friend’s husband secure in my welcoming womb, the elation of being alive, of riding life – these were the culprits. I felt safe in that room without shadows: no harm could come to me there. My mind too yielded its recesses, its secret pockets of pain and hope and expectation, and lived for the one clean moment of inhalation and expiration.

If you asked me to describe her expression as she hurled the bottle of acid upon me I would call it ‘playful’

My face had been banished from memory. Even in the bathroom they had taped up the mirror so that all I could see when I brushed my teeth in the mornings was a white sheet of paper that flapped faintly when the exhaust fan near the window (the barred window) was switched on. This was a new, fancy hospital, a plush and expensive hospital in the outskirts of Delhi, they were full of care and concern and newfangled ideas about the psychology of the patient.

* * *

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday or Centuries before?

Emily Dickinson, here in Ranikhet, in this bed which creaks, in the candlelight (the power has gone, a wire snapped, a pole fallen) with the insistent rhythm of the rain on the slate roof and a world of shadows closing in around me. I do not sleep at night; I am afraid of closing my eyes. I dread both dreams and reality but most of all I dread the half-light of that moment when one is not yet asleep, when the realities of night and day interlap, when the will is suspended and unreason begins its reign.

As a child, I was never afraid. My sister would whimper and cry at the slightest excuse or provocation, but I possessed a secret, hidden pool of resilience and belief that lay submerged somewhere between my mind and my young bodyscape, which I could access at will. As I grew older I forgot the way to this dream pool, and then, finally, it dried up. Now the shadows overtake me.

[image, unknown] focus

Acid attacks on women in the Indian sub-continent have seen a sharp increase in recent years, with four women blinded or having their faces disfigured every week, according to a study conducted by the Dhaka-based Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF). The charity cites rejection of proposals of love or marriage, family feuds, quarrels over property and non-fulfilment of dowry demands as motives. Many cases go unreported and few perpetrators are ever convicted. Sulphuric acid – used in car batteries – is cheap to buy and easily available from garages. The injuries are horrifying, the acid melting tissue. Girls and women thus afflicted are unlikely ever to marry and may have difficulty finding employment. Some have become activists in the Acid Survivors Foundation ( www.acidsurvivorsfoundation.org ) which assists in treatment and rehabilitation of ‘burnt’ girls and women, campaigns to prevent future attacks, and to bring about changes in attitudes towards women. Gender discrimination and the vulnerable position of women in South Asian society are the context for such attacks.

During the nights, I am possessed by the most dreadful sense of urgency, and the gentle eyes of our old Bhotiya dog, Lady, light up the dark that fills my room and save me from drowning. It is Lady’s persistent breathing that keeps me sane through the nights, the kinetic nights when words and phrases from my childhood crowd the room, illuminating faces I can remember but do not recognize. It is on such nights that I put on the lights and count the rafters (there are forty-two of them) and blank out those memories which still flit between the shadows.

My uncle in Bangalore had bought the house when we were very young. My sister and I had played in the garden in the summers, we chased the butterflies, plucked the hydrangeas, killed wood beetles and buried them near the stems of the climbing roses that clambered over the veranda. When evening fell and the shadows lengthened we would retreat into the security and safety of the house.

An Englishman who had never lived here had sold the house to my uncle in an inordinate hurry. Lohaniju came with it: Lohaniju who told us stories; Lohaniju who held us tenderly when we stumbled on the steps or were stung by the nettles that grew high and wild on the tennis court.

There is a young girl in my memories, she is thin and shy, she is hiding behind a curtain in this very bedroom, behind the curtain in her parents’ bedroom, and as she watches them fornicate, as she watches them at their loveless joyless task, her mother’s eyes heavy with resentment, she feels someone else watching them with her. She does not know who this is, but it is a calming soothing presence, it holds her hand, it gently strokes her forehead, it instructs her to shut her eyes and pretend nothing has happened. When she shuts her eyes she can see a garden in bloom, a sweet-smelling garden in which a beautiful woman in a blue dress is walking, holding an enormous bouquet of flowers. It is the garden outside this house. When she opens her eyes again her mother is tugging at the drawstring of the petticoat she wears under her sari, and the girl waits until they have left the room before she emerges from her hiding place. I suppose that girl was me.

I remember that after they had left the room and I crawled out from my spot behind the curtain, I found a sparrow searching for an elusive morsel on the polished wooden floor. Motes of dust danced in the sunbeams as the sparrow looked up enquiringly, not in the least intimidated, I felt for a moment happy and complete and without a care in the world. The curtain moved and rustled in the breeze. I was brushed by a tangible presence, by a whisper of consolation and comfort, a dim consciousness which haunted memory yet evaded recognition.

I am sleepy. I am tired. The shadows are lengthening as the candle sputters in its earthenware stand. The electricity has failed; it often does in the evenings. I can hear the wind as it provokes the dark green needles of the deodar tree, I can hear it wail through the house as it rises up the chimney – I hate these sounds. When I shut my eyes I can see Anand’s sister’s face contorted by an expression which is beyond anger or hate or spite. If you asked me to describe her expression as she hurled the bottle of acid upon me I would call it ‘playful’. I keep my eyes open to shut out the image of this face from my mind: it tends to float up in my interminable hours of half-sleep. I busy myself with other occupations: I play solitaire, I knit, I redo my nail polish, and as a last resort I count and recount the rafters. Today it is not her face that floats up before my eyes, but another one, a face without a face, a suggestion of a face, familiar yet mocking.

When at last I succumb to sleep I encounter the face again, but this time I recognize it, I know this person. I ransack my mind in the early hours of the morning trying to figure out who it is. ‘You are a neurotic wreck,’ I tell myself, but I’m not imagining it: that face is there waiting patiently to unmask itself The next morning, as I brush my teeth, I evade my face in the mirror as I normally do, but there is a new dimension to my horror and repugnance, for it has struck me that the face I see in my dreams is really my own.

I am not sure if The Doors are good for me, but they knew a thing or two about pain...

We have had a succession of Bhotiya dogs, all of them called Lady. The ‘Kukuriya baghs’, the dog-eating panthers, prey on them constantly. Lohaniju is a creature of habit; he likes to have a dog around the house and, according to him, it is a nuisance and a waste of time to keep on changing their names. Bhotiyas are the most wonderful dogs in the world, they are brave and fearless and loving; but they don’t survive in the plains, they belong to these mountains, and in many senses these mountains belong to them. It’s not just a charming inversion; there’s more to it than that. This breed shares some symbiotic strength with the soil and stones of our mountains: Bhotiyas sanctify the places where they live. Forgive me if I sound sentimental, but these days Lady is one of my last links with the living world, it is she who keeps me sane. Being licked by her rough furry tongue is my only absolution from pain, my salvation, almost.

Lady’s long black fur is tangled and covered with burrs. Her tail has the classic Bhotiya twist, and a speck of white at the end where it turns upon itself. I think perhaps I love this dog more than any of the other dogs that came before her.

The Doors again; it’s that or Led Zeppelin. Perhaps I should switch to Lata Mangeshkar, to sweet saccharine sounds that can contain the pain.

Sometimes its difficult to tell music from sound. Music is sound syncopated by silence. Noise is messy.

I am not sure if The Doors are good for me, but they knew a thing or two about pain, that’s for sure.

One night, as I was brushing my hair in the dressing room, I had a curious experience. I was overtaken by the sensation that my feet were not where I expected them to be. The ground below me had lost its authority, it no longer exercised the inevitable pull of gravity. The jute matting beneath me had abandoned faith and logic and assumed a life and form of its own. I felt weirdly disembodied; I was flailing, and my senses were overshooting themselves. It was as if I were receiving no information from my peripheries, as though my centre had been displaced. The fundamental and organic mooring of personality had completely abandoned me – I was as floppy as a ragdoll, but in the hands of what monstrous child I could not say.

My core felt different – it was as though I had been breached, as though someone or something had infiltrated me. I can remember quite clearly that my arms and legs began to go numb, and that there was a deep ringing sound in my ears. My voice when I spoke my own name out loud was hollow and suspect.

I remember awakening that night to find an iridescence suffusing the room. It was a circlet of light, like a gas balloon, or like ectoplasm, as I would imagine it to be from what I have read about seances and things like that. It wasn’t fuzzy at the edges, but quite well defined, with a double-edged outline of orange and pink shaping its billowing luminescence. It hovered over the old desk that stood in the corner, it looked gentle and utterly harmless. I reached out under the bed for Lady’s warm brown fur, and fell asleep again.

I dreamt of a woman standing in a garden, a bunch of summer blooms in her hand. I dreamt of a man in a cassock climbing uphill. When he turned to face me I confronted the deep empty sockets of his skeletal face. Yet I could sense that his eyes were sad, and that the grim contortions of his smile, of calcium and bared cartilage, were a travesty of his deepest emotions. I dreamt of deep night and a procession of fireflies. When I emerged from my night-consciousness I recalled these images with clarity and precision. I found they did not leave me or erode in my memory as the day progressed.

The Book of Shadows by Namita Gokhale
is published by Abacus, 2001, (ISBN 0 349 11 231).
www.littlebrown.co.uk

It may be ordered on www.bookshop.blackwell.co.uk
or via Blackwell's International Mail Order Book Service;
tel: +44 1865 261355 (24 hours);
fax: +44 1865 261355;
e-mail: extra@blackwellsbookshops.co.uk

Alternatively through www.amazon.com (North America)
and www.amazon.co.uk (Britain).

[image, unknown] Author Profile Namita Gokhale was born in the Kumaon Himalayas in 1956 and now lives in Delhi. She has had three previous novels published in India; Gods, Graves and Grandmothers; Mountain Echoes and Paro, Dreams of Passion. The latter caused a stir when it was published in the 1980s, pioneering a sexually frank genre in Indian writing. [image, unknown] During this time she almost died of cancer and lost her young husband from cirrhosis of the liver. In recent years death, love and lust have been her most common themes and she gives advice on bereavement in a regular newspaper column. She has said, in a personal note on The Book of Shadows: ‘I too have lived in the house I have written about. This is a novel which has its core in truth. It has been written, or it has written itself, under circumstances which would appear strange to most people. It has been a vehicle to resolve my personal pain, but there is more to it than that.’

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