Mariam Henna’s debut, The Heart Flutters at Night, comes with the tagline “A Campus Novella”. This campus happens to be in South India. As it opens, Sarah, in the aftermath of the breakup of a long-term relationship, moves to a campus town to study communications and write. She takes up residence in an apartment building called Gemvilla. The previous occupants of Sarah’s small apartment didn’t stay long and it’s rumored to be haunted. But Sarah is running from her own demons.
The fictional campus town of Mallikad is based on the town of Manipal in Karnataka where Henna lived for two years and where the book was first drafted. In the beginning of the story, Sarah quickly becomes friendly with her neighbors, who invite her to parties where they drink and smoke a lot of marijuana. They also speak of Gertrude Stein, Yoko Ono, and 1960s counterculture. All this reminiscing of bygone eras leads Sarah to feel as if she were Alice falling through a hole to Wonderland.
She has a fling with one of her neighbors, all while having to come to terms with past trauma she had buried for years. The book’s melancholy feel and feminist themes are belied by the descriptions of place that make the book a particular joy to read. For instance, Sarah’s new apartment at first seems like something out of a storybook.
A three storeyed fading dilapidated building, decades old. Ochre paint clung on to the walls, some of it peeling at the edges revealing an old pin beneath it, while rows of potted eucalyptus plants lined the entrance, and a mango tree stood quietly in a corner. Creepers covered an unused well. The building looked like it was drooping from the weight of carrying an enormous burden, a secret.
There is also her local tea shop, a place for writing and meeting friends.
Sarah sat on the stool, at her usual corner, facing away from the road, sipping on a cup of chai, absent-mindedly watching the small television that was sitting on top of the huge refrigerator. A glass-windowed shelf displayed fried snacks. Idols were kept on a raised shelf, and a calendar hung next to it. A few posters advertising ‘guitar classes for beginners’ and ‘bikes for rent’ were cello taped to the wall. Raghavan, the shop owner, sat at the cashier’s desk, watching the cricket match playing on the television, getting up now and then to make tea or food whenever the customers ordered.
Sarah’s trauma notwithstanding, tranquil scenes like these may leave the reader wishing Henna had tried for something longer than a novella.