Book Review : Nirmal Verma

The Red Tin Roof

Nirmal Verma

Penguin Classic

Price—Rs 299

Author Nirmal Verma’s (1929—2005), creative seeds were planted in the Simla hills, where he was born to a father who worked in the Defense department of the colonial government, in a typically middle class household.  Later he grew to be an acclaimed writer and winner of several literary awards including the Jnanpith.  He became best known for his short stories such as, Parinde,  Andhere Mein, Dedh Inch Upar, and Kavve Aur Kala Pani. As one of the proponents of the `Nai Kahani’ movement along with Hindi sahitya luminaries such as Mohan RakeshBhisham SahniKamleshwar, Amarkant etc.,  he experimented with a new literary idiom in Hindi literature.

This  book under review hallmarks Verma’s mastery over this genre. In this coming- of- age novel, a `Red Tin Roof’,  his  masterful pen dips into a palette of senses and repressed feelings, to describe a childhood unfolding into the bewilderment of adolescence.

At first reading, a blur of confusion;  of shapes, memories, voice, colour,  atmosphere, and feelings are conjured. Slowly from this, a story emerges.

The red tin roof belongs to a wooden house  in Simla where the girl Kaya’s family lives. The book’s jacket—a sensuous watercolour– captures the idyllic stillness of slow summer days bathed in the gorgeous sunshine of the hills. Through an impressionistic yet sure—footed narration, hued with  misty atmospheric detail,  Kaya’s inner and outer life is evoked in crystalline  prose rendering an elegiac account of a naïve girl growing up.

As the novel opens Kaya is preparing to leave for a girl’s hostel nearby. Her luggage is packed and the coolie waiting. Babu has rightly decided she must be with other girls of her own age away from the still loneliness of her home. But what of her younger brother,  Chhote? She tries to console him but memory swings back to the earlier year, to events which have metamorphosed into her departure from the house with the red tin roof.

So far Kaya’s life has revolved around the colourless, old, and weird; her mother, British neighbor Mrs Joshua and the midwife Dai Mai. Also in the picture is Dai Mai’s moronic son, Bholu. Not ideal companions for a young girl surely. As one turns the pages a haunting sense of gloom overtakes, of something lurking round the corner, which will catapult Kaya out of  innocence into an awakening cognizance of womanhood,  not to be a pleasant thing.

 

In modern parlance Kaya’s family would be called dysfunctional, but in the period the novel is set, possibly the early `50’s or 60’s, separation, alienation, loneliness and forbearance, was an ordinary part of a middle class family trying to cope with the exigencies of  roti, kapda aur makaan.  Babu, Kaya’s father, works in Delhi, and visits his wife, daughter and son in summer, just occasionally at Christmas. Most days she runs wild with Chhote trailing after her.

Abandonment is a common motif…….. Kaya spends the intervening months longing to have Babu with them all the time. She finds the wrench of partition unbearable. Old Mrs Joshua  on the ground floor, one of the last remnants of the British Raj , who preferred to remain in the hills rather than go with her husband to England, is another figure of abandonment albeit, out of choice. No letters are delivered to her tin letter box, stuffed with pigeon droppings, feathers, straw and the imagined metaphorical ubiquitous all knowing eye. Likewise abandoned is Kaya’s vacuous   mother. Tellingly,  Kaya shares a very tenuous emotional bond with her but a seemingly stronger one with old Mrs. Joshua.

However  though  lonely, Kaya does not feel her loneliness, peopled as her life is with amorphous shadows of imaginative renderings and ghostly feelings,  interrupted by their  Bua’s occasional visits from Meerut. Widowed Bua comes two or three times  every year to  Babu’s house and Chacha’s, an ex-fauji widower. Chacha lives with his melancholic  son Beeru,  further up the hill, at `Falkland’, just off the train station, Summer Hill.

Lama, Bua’s  rebellious adolescent daughter, accompanies her.  Her visit  enlivens  Kaya’s world that summer. But it also infuses her with questioning. Lama’s reluctance  to accept an arranged marriage is a source of un spelt  confusion and fear of what growing up means, just as much as the sight of her pregnant mother. Kaya is ashamed of her mother’s expanding girth. An importune witnessing of the final birthing of a still born child adds to her gloomy understanding of what womanhood is about.  Only  the compellingly warm presence of Mangtu, the loyal pahari servant diminishes this somewhat, though  not fully.

Why did Lama give her a letter to give to her mother supposedly full of lies about  her intended fiancé- an old widower?  When Lama leaves why does she ask her to keep her room ready to receive her back because she will be there in spirit? Who called out to Ginny, their dog, from  the tunnel near the railway tracks? These are awkward questions, which also connect to issues  about life and death. For that summer Ginny dies on the tracks and Lama never returns.

 

Exquisite cameos, such as Bua, a veritable Napoleon bargaining with the Simla rickshaw pullers; Mangtu, the servant,  lighting the grate;  or Mrs Joshua,  putting out cakes and biscuits for tea,  create an absorbing and enticing atmosphere.

Verma captures early Simla  unbroken by the clamour and activity of modern life; no TV, no internet, no variety or hustle bustle– just long summer days that drearily and wearily stretch into seasons laying bare the abundance and effulgence of nature;  of trees, wind and sounds, woven in a galaxy of moon-webbed words.

Slowness is a character in Nirmal Verma’s fiction. Nor does time move in a linear fashion, but is a zig zag line of blurred memory infused with deep feeling in which `atmosphere’ becomes a character remembered. It too is  a childhood recollected in walks, still afternoons, the constant companionship of people, the predictability of each day, its slumberous course, like a rite of passage that transforms a childhood into pubescence where realization slowly comes, that life can also mean pain.

In the first part it is Lama’s suppressed adolescent sexual longing that ignites questions in Kaya, but as the story moves to the second part, her encounter with Chacha’s earthy pahari mistress—wearing a  symbolic red petticoat, and surreptitiously ensconced in the servant’s quarters, raise obliquely other questions of a more mature sexuality.

In fact taken as a triptych, Lama, the pahari mistress, and her listless mother birthing a still born, all represent the arc of long suffering womanhood of those times. The sub-text of the novel is the author’s take on femininity and feminism. Contrarily, of the seven women he details, it is the oldest, Englishwoman Mrs Joshua,   who is  the only strong compelling character. She alone  has taken life into her own hands, not dictated by any man.

Finally from the `kauf’, or embryonic stillness, a discrete undercurrent of repressed sexuality and feminine voice swirl throughout the story that ends with the beginning of Kaya’s menstruation and her being sent away. In capturing the wounds of young lives, Verma also captures the wound of the hills—shown in the various seasons.

Verma’s  fiction fed off his activism of his early years, which became the prism through which he understood the world. He was in his earlier days a card-holding Communist, and travelled to Prague where he stayed till the Hungarian Uprising of 1968, after which quit the Communist Party. But before that he had travelled widely across Europe, and produced several  travelogues.  His first novel, based on his student days in Prague, is titled, Ve Din (Those Days–1964). A Torn Happiness,  is another of his well known novels. Till the end he continued to lend a voice of resistance against the Emergency first,  and advocacy for the Tibetan independence movement later. Lastly he also parried with discourses on modernity and Hindusim.

Dr. Manju Kak