Those lives of others
So why have they come...are they seeking or are they running away?
Rajkumari or Princess narrates a tale of love, heartbreak, desolation and never ending want that overpowers the lives of almost all residents in Pingakshipura - the town where water runs black and children are born with white hair. No witchcraft, blame the Sugandha detergent and the pesticides factory that run the town. The good roads and fancy houses and the ever-elusive happiness is for those Sugandha owners - or so you think till Princess tells you otherwise.
From her little room in the temple Princess (whose actual name is Kumari, one of her ‘clients’ called her Princess and the name remained) watches lives of others unfold like a movie as her cow Kanda (one of her only friends) remains steadfast by her side.
All this is just a preamble to Kavery Nambisan’s A Town Like Ours. What unfolds as the book opens up is a fairytale with no happy ending. Perfect in its poignancy and in the dull ache it induces as Nambisan wraps it all up neatly - like left-over food folded in a banana leaf, you have had your fill and now the rest must go, and yet you can’t quite throw it away, yet.
Through Princess’s narration, Nambisan brings to life some incredible characters - Saroj, Sampathu, Rukmani, Gundumani, Kripa, Manohar and Ghulam Bhai. And each of them seem to be stumbling through life with their huge loads of little happiness and a lot of want.
Happiness comes only in teaspoons in Pingakshipura. The way the town has embraced its white haired children and black waters, all the characters in the book embrace life with its stunting absence of permanent happiness or peace.
Saroja and Sampathu, unlikely lovers, join hands to raise Gundumani and Rukmani (Rukma) in a battered old taxi. They aren’t married and the children are from their pasts. They are never absolved off the burdens of their disparate pasts tied together only by trauma and memories born from them; no matter how well they raise the two, how fiercely they hold onto the dregs of some semblance of a home - they only need to struggle harder.
All that Saroja ever really wanted was a house, and she tries with all her might and body to acquire a little space where she can build a house with windows opening out and a roof. If Nambisan was a bad storyteller then Saroja would have got her house at the end of it all. But Nambisan mourns for all of them and some more.
Kripa and Manohar have a ‘happy’ marriage, for the want of a little more love, a little more intimacy, a little less of Kripa’s paintings that Manohar cannot stand and yes, a child or two. Just when you think you have walked into the house Saroja dreams of, you have Manohar storming out after a fight. And even before you can accuse him of going wayward, he is back home. Domestic bliss? No. You are on the wrong road entirely. While on the surface only a little jealousy plagues the couple the haunting emptiness that stems from the little copper device deep inside Kripa takes root in Manohar and vines over him. Manohar weaves out his own tales as a double life that is more scandalous than Superman and Bhoothnath’s romp with their mother.
‘A cup made of mud or glass or something more delicate. Perfectly shaped and very strong but also breakable...they lie with their arms apparently stiff by their sides, this couple, while each of them is silently reaching out to steady the trembling cup.’
Nambisan weaves out unrequited desire in Ghulam Bhai lusting after Saroja - the only thing that gets Saroja to allow Ghulam Bhai anywhere close to her is the want of some information. Information that would get her semblance-of-a-home back to her. Gundumani’s love for Rukma, as much as he cannot fathom the feelings he has for the girl he treated as a sister, the knowledge that they aren’t related comes to him with as much peace as a packet of fifty hundred rupee notes that he finds. He finds his way back home but Rukma is lost forever.
There are the buffaloes that give the Sugandha owner sleepless nights, the bone-setter who must live with the burden of a daughter crippled by his nonchalance, Moidu who loses his friends and Shafu with his belly occasionally full of Tiger biscuits.
‘My one prayer, which I say aloud, is for myself. When all this is over and done with, Pingakshi, grant that I have my feet, my eyes turned backwards,’ says Princess.
As A Town Like Ours drags its heavy shoulders to an end, you cannot decide whose tragedy is worse. The heartaches are incomparable and hauntingly unique. All you can do is revel in that feeling of waiting forever, without the hope that something good will come out of it all. In Pingakshipura, good never comes.