Like shapes in a kaleidoscope, poet and translator Maithreyi Karnoor bends and refracts her characters in this mercurial novel, Sylvia.
Set mainly in southern Goa, the novel dispenses with various conventions such as a linear timeline, an adherence to prose (several poems are included) and the traditional role of the protagonist. Sylvia is rarely center stage, playing a secondary part in the beginning chapter and only hitting the spotlight at the book’s close. Otherwise she is fleetingly glimpsed and mostly through others’ recollections: a former co-worker, classmate or friend. Notwithstanding, Sylvia is the glue between the other characters and their stories.
The first part of the book introduces Cajetan Pereira, a returning expat who is drawn to a house in south Goa because it has a view of a rare baobab tree, much like the one which stood by his childhood home in Dar es Salaam. He is known in the village by the homonymic nickname of Bhaubaab, which translates as brother and respectable elder. He befriends a young male neighbor, Lakshmi, who has retreated home after a failed career in acting. After an unfortunate accident derails the camaraderie, the pair are reunited when Bhaubaab’s unsettled (and unsettling) niece—Sylvia— visits unexpectedly.
As uncle and niece talk, their back stories are revealed. Both are estranged from Sylvia’s father and Bhaubaab’s brother Anton, a homophobic misogynist. Bhaubaab was bullied by Anton and rejected by his parents for being gay while Sylvia’s upbringing was destroyed by Anton’s abuse of her mother. A plan for Sylvia to write about these experiences is disrupted after she sleeps with Lakshmi and, overwhelmed by the complications, flees back to Bangalore.
There is plenty to enjoy in this work other than its clever structure.
Initially, the second half of the novel feels skittish. Each chapter reads like a self-contained short story, randomly placed and with the most tangential link to Sylvia. For example, “Eggshells”, the beginning of Part II, is a page long and concerns a small boy buying broken eggs. This is followed by a tragic tale of loss, Bhagirati, in which the titular mother drowns herself, although the baby is saved. The tie with Sylvia is that Bhagirati was once her work colleague.
However, rather like a detective novel, as the pages turn, repetitions and tips hint at hidden connections. In “The Bonesetter”, Sylvia makes a rare appearance driving her husband, a chicken farmer, to Gandhi-tata’s house for treatment of his broken hand. Although by the end of the novel, Sylvia (finally at peace) appears to be still single, it can be inferred that she is the female egg-seller in “Eggshells”—a sort of epilogue intriguingly positioned halfway through. Likewise, later episodes disclose Bhagirati’s widower husband, Santosh, and their son Bassam turn out to be far more closely bound into Sylvia’s network than at first the reader assumes.
“Eggshells” is also of note as it provides author Karnoor with a showcase for her translator skills and fascination with words. The short piece is, in essence, a play on the phrase “walking on eggshells”. Puns and observations about language pepper the novel and some are particularly insightful. Karnoor writes:
Life is simpler when urban people go to live in villages in linguistic regions other than their own. The moral difference they display is quickly ascribed to the otherness of the region they come from… But when they speak the language of that place, they are no longer the other. Seen to belong, they are inadvertently subject to judgement; they are slotted by caste and their urban corruptions are more keenly scrutinized.
There is plenty to enjoy in this work other than its clever structure. Karnoor makes room for little digs at NGOs, environmental concerns and musings on the fashion for disillusioned city workers to return to the countryside. The backdrop of southern India, both rural and urban, is vibrantly realized in all its beauty, and occasional ugliness, too. Emphasizing the interconnectedness of everything, Karnoor’s ability to twist and reform these elements, revealing previously unseen patterns, is a dazzling experience which demands several readings.