Friday, 12 February 2016

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: When Siva's Amma is pregnant, she is cursed by the hijra, Sweetie-Cutie, one of a group of transgender women, “kohl round their eyes, flowers in their hair, night-old stubble clouding their chins bluegreen,” who tells her, “may you give birth to a daughter.”

What Sweetie-Cutie does not know is that Amma longs for more than anything else is a daughter.

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here belongs to a story tradition – going back to Tristram Shandy and The Tin Drum, of narrators who are conscious from birth, or even from their own conception.

Siva is the sole survivor of fraternal twins – the unexpected son who can never take the place of the longed-for daughter. His mother, lost in grief (and probably suffering from postpartum psychosis) first identifies Siva as his dead sister, Tara, and then when forced to confront the fact that he is not Tara, rejects him completely.

Siva is left to struggle with his own identity. To him, Tara is a constant companion, but is she a ghost speaking to him for Para-dies? Is she a part of him? Or is he Tara? Is he a boy or a girl - and what does that even mean. At various points in the story Siva is dressed, or dresses himself, as a girl, and then has to deal with other people’s reactions – from the horror of the nuns at his Catholic school to the delight of the hijras.

“I didn’t know whether I was a boy pretending to be a girl or the other way around.”

The other layer to this story is the house they live in – Victoria Villa, Gibbs Road, Machilipatnam on the Bay of Bengal. The house was built by George Gibbs, an English scientist, owner of a dye factory and inventor of a mosquito repellent. The house is still filled with many of George’s possessions, fabrics, books, magazines – and his journals.

“You shouldn’t keep other people’s things,” Siva’s grandmother warns. “They store old memories and they will seep into you and make you live their lives.”

And indeed, as Siva begins reading George’s journals, it does seem that history does is repeating itself.

Even though this is a story centred around depression and loss, it zings with life. There is a playfulness about the language that echoes the playfulness of the two children – Siva and his friend, Rebecca – as they try and understand the world around them. Srivatsa strings words together and muddles them up, as children do. Amma, before depression descends, is described as “cashewtoned, spicesmelling, spicetasting, all the way down to her buttocks, such harvestheaps.”

The atmosphere of Machilipatnam assails all five senses as you read, from the railway station, smelling of “refried snacks, sweaty feet, vomit and ammonia,” to “the hidden cluster of bamboo on the shore that seemed to me like a womb.” “Rebecca and I shared a map of it ... in which green-green trees sprang out of the red soil, dwarfing the homes around, and the hills soared into the blue-blue sky.”

This is a story that will beguile and seduce you, all the way to its troubling and ambiguous end.

You will enjoy this if you loved: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, The Tin Drum by G√ľnter Grass

Avoid if you dislike: Magic Realism, child narrators, stories that challenge the nature of gender.

Perfect Accompaniment: Tamarind curry with rice, and a ripe papaya

Genre: Literary Fiction, South Asian Literature

Available from Amazon

No comments:

Post a Comment