Rural India, Sylvia Plath and human relationships come together in Maithreyi Karnoor's bold debut novel
Karnoor’s book experiments with the novel form, blending prose with poetry and painting a quaint but haunting portrait of two people: one searching for a story, the other for home.
Poetry is Maithreyi Karnoor’s greatest delight. Poems come to her in an almost intuitive, organic manner, whereby an idea is formed as she sits down to write and flows onto the page in free verse, her chosen form of expression. It is no surprise then that Karnoor’s debut novel, Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, was born out of a poem. She wrote a verse in 2018 and her imagination kindled a story, multiple characters, their innermost complexities and conflicts. When she was finished, she realised simply, “Well, here's a novel.”
The poet, author and award-winning translator has a penchant for wordplay. The poem which led to her novel flourished as a take on the Konkani portmanteau bhaubaab (brother-sir) and the baobab, a tree which arrived on Indian shores from faraway Africa as many as 2000 years ago.
Karnoor’s book is a bold work which experiments with the novel form, blending prose with poetry and painting a quaint but haunting portrait of two people: one searching for a story, the other for home. In the novel, Cajetan Pereira, or bhaubaab as he is fondly known to the people of a small village in Goa, returns to his ancestral land even as he yearns for his home in Africa. Here, he is on a quest to trace not his Goan roots but the memories of his childhood spent in Tanzania. In this quiet village, Pereira procures a house facing a baobab which reminds him of the tree that stood near his own home in Dar es Salaam.
Contrarily, her protagonist, the eponymous writer and journalist Sylvia, lives a semi-nomadic existence much like the author. Karnoor often changes homes, preferring to live in one place for no longer than a couple of years. “I was able to use my experience there to create her trajectory,” she notes while describing how her stay in quaint villages and small cities like Pune, Hyderabad and Bengaluru shaped Sylvia’s arc.
Such travels have taken Karnoor to Goa sporadically, and it was while living in a quiet little village among welcoming and warm locals that Sylvia and bhaubaab crept into the author’s mind. Her research led her to discover the connection between Goa and other erstwhile Portuguese colonies predominantly in Africa, and how families from this coastal region migrated to African provinces in the 19th century.
“The Goans living there enjoyed certain privileges, they lived good lives. They all claim that they had a great time there,” she adds, describing the accounts of her friends and their relatives, even her own distant aunt, all of whom continue to have ties in Africa.
Though it is set for the most part in the countryside of Goa and Kerala, Sylvia by no means romanticises rural India as an idyll removed from the toil and trouble of cities. Issues concerning livelihoods, superstition and ritualistic practises that rural communities are immersed in feature in her prose. Karnoor herself grew up in Mudhol, a small town in northern Karnataka, and says that she is familiar with the small-town psyche. She admits that even now, she gets “heebie-jeebies” in metropolises like Mumbai or Delhi, so writing about characters living in small villages was natural for her. She points out that most Indian writing in English is urban-centric, “but I think it’s time that we start looking at the provinces – small towns and villages – without patronising them. Because that is where most of India lives: in small towns and villages.”
In Sylvia, Karnoor sets off on an exploration of human relationships. She manages to flip the reader’s gaze with an abruptness that sparks curiosity. While the first half of the story focuses on Cajetan and his long-lost niece Sylvia – who finds her uncle in Goa, by a stroke of chance – the latter half of the novel presents itself as fragments from stories of many people who have waltzed in and out of Sylvia’s life.
“I am a private person,” Karnoor says, “I don’t like being in the glare of people's gaze, so I did not want to do that to my character either. I thought I should give her some privacy but keep her story going.”
She adds, “We are all peripheral characters in the lives of other people, so I didn’t want her to hog the focus. I wanted that character to evolve through the stories of other people.”
Through their experiences, Karnoor speaks of “the times we live in: our societies, political system…” She writes about Bhagirathi, a schizophrenic battling her inner demons, Shaila and Sujeeth, dreaming of a rural idyll, and Reshma, fighting the penury she was born into. In each of their lives, Sylvia plays different roles — a friend, a wife, a lover — and it is through their lens that the author reintroduces her protagonist in the story.
Interestingly, the strands of their narratives are so connected that Sylvia never fades from memory. “You meet her in the beginning and in the end, but in the end, you don’t feel like you don’t recognise her because you know what has been going on in her life.”
For the poet, the translations that she previously worked on acted like “training wheels” while writing this story. “Translation,” she remarks, “is extremely creative work. It’s not as simple as finding equivalent words in a different language. It’s also about recreating emotions, recreating settings and tones, and you have to write beautifully.”
Karnoor’s journey as a translator began when she first wrote English subtitles for a Kannada film that her class was watching in a course titled 'Indian Cinema in the 1950s', as part of their Master’s programme. Much later, she would go on to translate Shrinivas Vaidya’s Kannada work Halla Bantu Halla into English as the critically acclaimed work, A Handful of Sesame.
The “rigorous process of translation” proved to be so useful that writing a novel became an act of creating a thought within the mind and translating it into words. “And my poetic instincts kept coming in regularly,” she notes. The poetic interludes that Karnoor introduces in the narrative for ambiguity, splinter the illusion of being in a constant, lateral reality, morphing almost into a stream of consciousness oscillating between multiple peoples’ choices.
Her poetry comes through in the name of her novel too, which bears an intrigue of its own. That her protagonist and her prose is heavily influenced by the American author and poet Sylvia Plath does not go unnoticed, to the extent that Sylvia Pereira shares her initials with the 20th century writer.
The author read the well-known novel The Bell Jar years ago and was immediately drawn to Plath’s semi-autobiographical work, which raises questions of identity while describing her descent into clinical depression — themes which are vividly touched upon in Karnoor’s novel.
“I enjoy her poems, they speak to me,” she says, “But at the same time, she had such a tragic life. She died when she was 32, I am 37 now,” she pauses thoughtfully before continuing, “I just felt she had so much more to life which was truncated by mental health issues, trouble in her marriage… and I just felt this strong connection with her.”
Karnoor corrects the tragedy that was Plath’s life simply by not writing a tragic story. Her ‘Sylvia’ “does go through some difficult situations but at the same time she keeps growing, and the trajectory is that she is evolving and good things are happening: she starts off as a novice writer in a dead-end job but then towards the end, although she has issues, has problems, she is an established writer.”
Now, Karnoor is working on a collection of poems, but the problem with publishing a poetry collection, she rues, is that there are not many takers. “Who buys poetry? Only other poets buy poetry books. That’s it.” Looking beyond the sordid realities of Indian fiction, Karnoor is on a quest towards expanding her horizons as a poet.
With nearly 200 works to choose from and curate for her book, she says genially, “In the beginning my poems were full of angst, pain and rage but over time I have reached a level of greater acceptance of the chaos around me... now I am able to find brighter, happier – funnier even – words for my thoughts.”
Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends has been published by Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Publications.
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