Breakdancing in Times Square, New York City.
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Review: These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar – books reviews

328pp, 599 rupees; Hachette

An imagined memory, the unblocked effervescence, creates a happy image. Imagine, a very Tamil woman, in her sixties, wearing a bright yellow nine-yard silk sari, stopping to gawk at a break-dancer in 1980s Times Square, New York. Newly widowed and freed from the Slavery of domestication, he is on a solo journey to get a piece of a world that is alien to him. “My grandmother wanted to borrow the breakdancer’s ease, its flexibility, its sheer fluvial exuberance. Emboldened, she marched forward, tapped him, and whispered, “Hello.” Asked, ‘How is it done?’ The breakdancer, his body glistening with sweat, reached out and reached for my grandmother. His fingers intertwined with hers, he put out one foot, then another, jumped slightly and took Amamma away. The image of Deeya’s grandmother matching her step with a breakdancer is one of the most enduring images of Dharini Bhaskar’s delightful debut. These, our bodies, possessed by the light.

His book takes the reader on a journey that combines the multiple stories of a family across three generations in mellifluous prose. That it made the shortlist for the 2020 JCB Prize for Literature is no surprise. He is a worthy contender. As she herself admits, poetry is Bhaskar’s first love, and this is a “poet’s novel” here, an appropriate epithet. These, our bodies, possessed by the light borrows for its title a line from the poem by the American poet Richard Siken Scheherazade. Like Scheherazade, whose stories half told each night in the One thousand and One Nights To earn her reprieve, the women in Deeya’s family must seek the completion of her narratives as she envisioned them, through alternate stories.

Bhaskar picks up an expansive truth as a strong central motive: that while we are a mosaic of the fragments of people who came before us, our mothers, grandmothers and an entire tribe, whose truths and narratives are subconsciously bequeathed to us, we are also the coalescence of genomes, the choices we make, and our personal tides of destiny.

The writer is a forger of words, her language and her imagery are the twin protagonists. The lines are infused with effortless lyricism. “What can be said about the pain of childhood? That it is lonely. Which is invisible. Denied the vocabulary accorded to adult despair. That changes, mutates, but rarely disappears. That leaves a mark. My sisters and I were stained with pain. ”For language lovers, it is a joyous read.

The plot is a gigantic blanket of memories, sewn in Deeya’s mind, samples with footprints of a family that began in 1943 with Sarojaa, a 16-year-old, pretty and plump, who must respond to the man with a “rice belly flourishing”. , calling her and who she should eventually marry. This story begins with that little girl, Deeya’s grandmother, and traces the family’s personal stories across three generations. Deeya is the chronicler of her family’s tales, woven into the current situation of her own fragmented life carrying the baggage of an aborted love with a much older man and the spartan landscape of a healthy marriage. The sepia-tinged, soft-colored anecdotes are part real and part fiction. One is indistinguishable from the other.

Amamma, the grandmother with a spirit as indomitable as her spine, is drawn with great care: as a 16-year-old girl, she forms a brotherly bond with the “sterile” first wife of her much older husband. Several years later, it is difficult to reconcile that personality with a “descent into oblivion.” In contrast, Deeya’s mother, Vanaja, “passed quickly through school”, “reveled in a quiet adolescence.” Her marriage falls apart one night, when her husband flees from predictability and growing responsibilities, choosing his art over real life. Clumsily she holds together for herself and her three growing daughters with distinctive personalities, with the help of her mother and the weak crutch of a pile of unsent letters to the man who abandoned them. Bhaskar makes good use of the epistolary form: Deeya’s parents exchange shy and jerky aerograms about each other’s lives before they get married. In another moment, she imagines her grandmother sharing letters with the boy-man from her school days who erratically yearned for her. When Deeya and the youngest Tasha travel to Norway in search of their father amidst the art galleries and the rare dark face, Deeya sends Sahil, her lover, a postcard after much deliberation. Each of these letters is characteristic of its writers.

It is a home to diverse female personalities: Amamma, Mamma, Tasha, the youngest and most stubborn, who throws herself headlong into adventure in all its forms, Ranja, the first-born, prim and protected even as a child, who seeks perfection, walk enthusiastically down the road. beaten path, and Deeya the narrator. As in many writings, where women dominate, occupy familiar spaces, or explore unfamiliar terrain by stepping out of comfort zones, male characters recede in strength and importance.

Author Dharini Bhaskar

Author Dharini Bhaskar (courtesy JCB award)

Home is a theme and is infused with sensory richness. For little Deeya, home is an open chest made of heavy wood, filled with thick woolen clothing for the warm weather, nestled in familiar scents: mothball and damp, orange and nutmeg, and “that peculiar scent that overshadows everything. the rest: oils of abandoned paintings, charcoal, ink… ”It is the strong memory of a short childhood full of parents. While Bombay, the smells of Chembur and Sahil become her home as a young adult, the aseptic house in Providence The United States, which she moves to after her marriage, is still “Dev’s house,” not hers, where life assumes a disjointed existence.

At the end, These, our bodies, possessed by the light it is very much about links, choices and spaces. “There are so many reasons to commit to one person. Love, some call it, or attraction or desire… We join those who discover our happiest memories. Who then build with us, not something new, but old and half forgotten. “There is a cosmic righteousness in the fact that while Dev, the husband works on a ship, Neil, the new man who knows and knows better in a few moments than her husband for several months captures the afterlife of the ships that are seeing the end of their work. life. It is strangely Ranja who wisely says to Deeya in a transatlantic call towards the end of the book, “Her shrill tone, puffs of screaming glee, every word dipped in helium. “” It’s a fact Dee. Our dispositions dictate our lives. We’re like planets, don’t you see? We think we’re free to do what we want, go where we want, but our orbits we limit “. It encapsulates an essential part of the story.

Richard Siken’s poetry is said to “effectively juxtapose sacred images with worldly images, making both appear beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy.” The description also matches Bhaskar’s writing. These, our bodies, possessed by the light it is an evocative story eloquently told.

Sonali Mujumdar is a freelance journalist. Lives in Mumbai.

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