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A woman, a brutal assault, redemption, and Nature – a gripping narrative 

Anupama Mohan’s book is a power-packed narrative with a refreshing mixture of prose and poetry, says Ranjita Biswas. The book introduces the reader to a world which lies just outside the urban milieu waiting to be discovered

Author: Anupama Mohan
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs 599 (hardcover)

Mayflies do not have a long life. In fact, the female dies within five minutes after the larva stage, while the male can live a maximum of two days. But in Anupama Mohan’s debut novel Where Mayflies Live Forever the symbolism of the insect takes on another dimension. Albrecht Dürer, German engraver, included a mayfly in his 1495 engraving of The Holy Family with the Mayfly to suggest a link between heaven and earth.

Mohan’s book is a power-packed narrative with a refreshing admixture of prose and poetry. She has published a poetry collection and numerous short stories. In this slim book, they happily merge to make an absorbing read. The story at first would seem to be a murder mystery with the question hovering in the air, ‘where is Veni?’, is not at all in that genre though the chapters are divided  into first-person accounts, as in an investigative crime story, by people associated with a woman who has disappeared from the milieu.

Veni, short for Sriveni, is a name lovingly given by a mother to her daughter distinguished by her long plait of thick hair. “Sriveni – she is named after a river, braided hair, a flood; so many meanings the word has.”  Indeed, Veni, an ‘ordinary’ girl living in a nondescript small town in Tamil Nadu, daughter, wife, schoolteacher, has many undiscovered sides. The murder of Annathe, a local honcho, with his head missing, catapults Veni into public attention. She had been brutally assaulted by him and his side kicks.

“Veni is no stranger to pain – young women go through teeth-shattering pain during pregnancy…. did it come to her aid on that savage night – who can say. But they say she hung in there despite the savagery of the attack, they say she gritted so hard that her molars crumbled but the piece of the shirt she wrenched and by which one of the men was later identified remained inside her mouth, they say that although she was battered and kicked and flung around, she protected her spine somehow.” Was she the one who decapitated the tormentor in a vengeful mood? She had lost her unborn child in that attack too, she who helped her grandmother in numerous childbirths. Where is she?

Meanwhile, out of sight of people and policemen, Veni finds herself in a cave of astonishing beauty, ethereal even. “In less than a minute thousands of birds flew out from the dark side of the cave up into the lit sky with a sound that echoed all through the universe… just as it had begun, so the throng scattered and in a matter of seconds, vanished from sight… Veni stood in utter astonishment, incapable of grasping what she had witnessed and wondering if the gods in heaven were sending her signs.”

Spending days and months in the lap of Nature helps Veni to heal the wound that had festered in her mind. She comes out fearlessly to face the world: “As she made her way out, she moved like a creature of the cave, her eyes and ears brightened by the touch of darkness, her heart beating steady to a rhythm that was one with the water and the trees and the birds.”

Underlying the story is the brutality meted out to women in a patriarchal society, the divide between powerful and powerless and the ensuing cruelty, and the layers in a fragmented society – and families, where people do the things the way they do. It is also about the equation between man and nature, its embalming effect and strength that help a human being to become a person in the truest sense without the paraphernalia of identities society imposes.

Mohan’s description of the cave with its luxurious vegetation: “Sunlight poured in from a vast hole from the roof of the cave and so large was the clearing that gigantic tress grew” (‘it’s real, not imaginary’ she says), the traditional knowledge of Veni’s grandmother about childbirth and the use of herbs which Veni and mother (while assisting her) also learn, are so authentic that at times it seems unexpected coming from a writer of today’s urban generation. The author says it grew out of her personal interest in botanical taxonomy, ocean studies, geology, and nature writing. All one can say is that they make the amalgam very organic.

Mohan’s book is not only an interesting read but it also introduces the reader to a world which lies just outside the urban milieu waiting to be discovered.

(The writer is a senior journalist who lives in Kolkata.)