Voltaire once wrote ‘tears are the silent language of grief’. In the modern era where digital footprints and emoticons are the severest our language ever emotes the vocabulary of grief has changed. From tears it has shifted to the invisibility of solitude, of being there, but not really. The nature of loneliness has changed as well and so have the problems that come with it. Mental health may not be a virus as classifiable as Polio but it now calls for something akin to a social vaccination, a conversation that at least normalises these problems or makes it easier to consider them. Udayan Mukherjee’s debut novel Dark Circles, the metaphor withstanding, is a rewarding journey across the ruins of one family that finds each of its corners stretched in the face of a personal revelation. With its walls crumbling, will the constitution stand?
Mukherjee, who quit the media some time ago to live in the hills of Kumaon offers a fairly familiar premise: a dead mother, Mala, leaves a letter that exposes her two surviving sons to a truth they can’t even decide if they wanted to know in the first place. That Mukherjee begins with the revelation itself usurps any premonition of the book turning into the script of a tv soap that it almost doffs its hat to at first. Mala’s has two sons, Ronojoy and Sujoy, the polar opposite of each other. The former quieter, more restrained than the younger, more impulsive Sujoy. The older brother receives the letter that tosses the lives of the two, via the elastic of history, into a bowl full of needling memories. Both confront their past, delicately wrapped around the shattering memory of their father, Subir’s death.
Each character in Mukherjee’s novel carries some baggage, inlayed with a capacity for grief that is both familiar yet difficult to address. Mala, who grieves in particular about her own decisions, writes in the letter ‘all anchors in our lives had been thrown away’. That letter, the revelation that it carries, drops like a block of wood on the rim of the punchbowl that is the brothers’ existence after she passes away. Hers is a wrenching, painful presence in the heart of others. She dies alone in an ashram, her ailment a personal secret she kept hidden. But her last, parting glance may yet be her greater influence on her sons – something that could uncork several bottled secrets about the history of her family, and about her relationship with her husband, Subir.
In the aftermath of the letter, both Ronojoy and Sujoy must face up to dilemmas, and answer questions that not only affect them but others as well. Though they make choices, neither offers closure. History can at times feel so distant, so irredeemable, the author seems to say. In some ways, Mukherjee’s narration offers suspense, not of revelatory discoveries, or unicorns in the shed but the lucid meanderings of human behaviour, at times the sheer simplicity of it all. Despite the opioid high of its beginning, the book manages to reign in the moderateness of character that keeps the reader hooked. Mukherjee jumps back in time, adding layers and meaning to everything that happens between and to the brothers. In an acutely wrenching scene, a young Ronojoy walks onto his father corpse, a memory that might have scarred him forever.
That said, Dark Circles largely soars is in its exploration of mental health and depression. Both Ronojoy and Sujoy have a history of brooding. Though highly successful, both berate the nature of their profession or the lack of personally liberating pastures they pine for access to. Both react differently to grief and prickly realities, representative of the way mental health can manifest in modern times; a character in the book says ‘we are all so strange’. Yes, we are. Mukherjee, who has arrived on the writing scales a little late in life, has thankfully arrived with the kind of contrition and forgiveness that perhaps only a man with years of lived experience behind him could. He seldom exaggerates, or stretches the potency of an argument beyond its assigned genteelness, and thankfully doesn’t cater to the presumed sexiness of mental illness that the world of art is guilty of. To Mukherjee, grief is not inspiration.
If one were to pick a bone with Dark Circles it would be its premise, the near implausibility of it and perhaps its handling of the climax. But Mukherjee manages to steer the reader away from obsessing over it, and leaves him or her at the rim, watching over the turbulence in the middle of this familial urn. Thankfully, the writer also restricts his narrative of grief to family, often the concourse of our greatest victories and defeats. The overbearing, and quite simply done-to-death analysis of draining corporate – that the author himself gave up on – jobs, the hustle that comes with it and the nihilism it portends, is avoided. And the book is much better for it, keeping its sides close and its corners even closer. For a first novelist Mukherjee’s narration is lean, airy, often presided by a welcome tendency to jump across time and cut moments when they begin to slacken. In a way, Dark Circles feels like a book of memory, where its travels into the past fittingly reveal something much greater about human emotion, or what it conceals, in the shade of unasked questions like does ‘sadness breed more sadness?’.
Updated Date: Nov 04, 2018 09:27 AM