Author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay tackles the ultimate taboo in this clever novel which uses the metaphor of a mother abandoning her child to explore the artist’s struggle to fulfill the responsibilities of life as well as the demands of creativity.
We first meet the protagonist, Ishwari, on the streets of Kolkata at night. She has fled her family commitments, only to find that her five-year old son, Roo, has followed her. Helped by a taxi-driver, she manages to find shelter in a dilapidated guest-house run by an elderly man. This turns into a permanent arrangement as she attempts to find a job which doesn’t conflict with childcare.
After failing to make the grade as a counselor and a teacher, Ishwari is eventually hired by friends of the guest-house’s owner. Her job is to act as a companion to their grown-up son, Bibaswan, who is recovering from the death, in childbirth, of his wife as well as his own injuries sustained in a car accident. Roo’s health begins to seriously deteriorate but he must stay locked in their room in the guest-house so Ishwari can both work and begin a toxic affair with Bibaswan. When it ends, because Bibaswan will not take on her son as well as herself, she is left alone. Now unemployed and her savings depleted after paying for medical treatment for Roo, Ishwari realises she can no longer cope with him and abandons him one last time.
This desperate action isn’t as shocking as it could be because Bandyopadhyay makes it very clear that Roo, his mother and their relationship is merely a literary device. As she writes about Ishwari in the act of abandonment:
As a virtual human being, she felt no pain, for she knew that every artist had to sacrifice her soul at one or another to keep living as a practiced, professional entertainer.
As well as being virtual, Ishwari also has multiple identities. She appears simultaneously as both a third-person fictional character and as a first-person narrator (who is also watching the third-person Ishwari). It is a interesting way of portraying an internal conflict but adds an emotional distance between protagonist and reader. For example, Bandyopadhyay writes:
Ishwari takes control at such times. I don’t like talking too much. Ishwari tries to wind words around life to tie it down. She speaks like written sentences and in this case too she followed Derrida’s prescription, that ‘speech is writing’ or ‘speech is a complex definition of writing’ and made her finishing statement.
In order to be great, one has to be selfish.
It’s arguable that if Ishwari showed more guilt over her actions, she might be more compelling as a character. As an avatar, she is much less sympathetic. Either way, her experience is what counts. Drilled down to its simplest analysis, the novel’s message is that you cannot be a successful artist if you’re burdened with motherhood. The odds are stacked against Ishwari ever rewriting her accidently burnt novel due to lack of money and a sick son. In contrast, Bibaswan’s ability to paint is unencumbered by poverty or family.
This notion will strike a chord with many parents (male and female) who have made sacrifices—creative or otherwise—to raise children. In order to be great, one has to be selfish. As Bandyopadhyay says, it seems easier for men to get away with that than women.