Rumpa Das Reviews Ketaki Datta’s One Year for Mourning

Mnemosyne’s favourite child: Reading Ketaki Datta’s One Year for Mourning

Mnemosyne,  the  Titaness  and  the  daughter  of  Gaia  and  Uranus,  gave  birth  to  the  nine Muses  following  her  union  with  Zeus.  Among  the  Muses  was  Terpsichore,  the  Muse  of dance.  Kathakali,  a  stylized  Indian  dance  form  that  originated  in  Kerala  is  best  known forits ornate couture, elaborate make up, dramatized evocation of human emotions that have been almost tropified, detailed gestures and the accompaniment of music, playback and often percussion. Ketaki Datta’s protagonist is named Kathakali (endearingly called Mithi or ‘sweet’ by her family members), and what happens in course of this 187-page novel  is  as  if  a  recital  of  the  human-drama in Kathakali’s life, complimented by her poetic  effusions  of  all  nuances  of  human  emotions  in  retrospect.  Mnemosyne  as  if situates the novelist in the layers of Kathakali’s psyche and helps her unwrap the folds of time to reveal one layer of rich emotional experience after another. The novel, published by  Partridge,  in  many  ways  recalls  the  subtle  recording  of  the  mindscape  that  was evident in her debut novel, A Bird Alone(2009) but transcends the flight of the bird in being both acutely personal as well as liberatingly universal in appeal.

The novel has as prologue lines from T. S. Eliot’s Little Giddingthat reminds readers of the inexorability of the end mingling with the beginning. As Eliot had put it, ‘  . . . the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time’.  And so the novel starts where it ends, the death of the mother in the super-speciality hospital of a small town in North Bengal and the chapter-heading hauntingly echoes the stillness of the final sleep –‘No More’. The novelist accepts the challenge to start her novel from a vacuous nihilism that symbolically has the power to overwhelm all traces  of  human  efforts  and  activity,  all  traces  of  human  life.  But  the  emptiness  and sense  of  profound  loss  that  initiates  the  novel’s  journey  is  more  than  offset  by  the chapters that roll next, and the poignantly moving scenes of human lives it unfolds. The protagonist Mithi’s mother –beautiful, talented and all that mothers are usually blessed with –meets her end at the comparatively ‘unjustified age of 67’ (p.14) Mithi’s trauma, her efforts to come to terms with this turbulent phase of her life after an equally arduous and  prolonged  effort  when  she  had  patiently  nursed  her  mother  through  her  difficult days  of  undergoing  dialysis,  and  the  final  hours  of  a  breathless  wait –when  the  mind knew that her mother is living on borrowed time, yet the heart screams an agonising No! to the brain’s realisation –all  are  sensitively  but  graphically  plotted  by  the  meticulous author.

The next chapters –Our days in the past, Youth in Blossom, Wayward Love –delineate Mithi’s growing up as well as her displacement from Calcutta, the first place she knew as home to a small  town in North Bengal where her parents and her younger brother lived. Once she settles down (does she ever settle down?), Mithi’s life becomes a whirligig of varied  emotions,  new  experiences  that  are  to  leave  an  indelible  mark  on  her  sensibility and  character.  Her  English  Literature  teacher,  Prof.Banerjee,  her  father –the  amiable doctor, committed to his cause and to  his feline pets, her mother’s friend, Rani auntie –the  Cleopatra  of  the  hick-town,  even  the  quaint  river  Tarangini  that  serenely  swept  the flanks  of  the  town –all  had  a  tremendous  impact  on  the  impressionable  mind  of  the poetically-oriented  Mithi,  as  Kathakali  was  called.  Her  brother,  Tubu,  flits  across  the pages of the narrative in swift, boyish treads, matching the graceful steps of her mother who  exists  throughout  the  novel  like  the  unmistakeable  aura  of  warmth  and  affection that’s synonymous with maternal care.  But along with the mother who is the chief moving force of the main plot, there exists Rani, the incorrigibly romantic  aesthete who seems  to  gush  out  of  her  cloistered  existence  as  a  doctor’s  wife.  Rani’s  story –of unrequited love, suppressed genius, and irrepressible passion is almost fore-doomed to conform to societal duress and patriarchal mores. Mithi, naïve, innocent, eager to grow is  drawn  alongside  Rani,  sensual,  intense  and  eager  to  drink  life  to  the  lees.  However, there is no attempt on the part of the author to judge either, though asa woman-writer, her  allegiances  are  naturally  with  her  protagonists.  One  cannot  but  agree  with  Keats, albeit  in  a  different  generic  paradigm,  that  one  really  hates  poetry  [or  any  kind  of literature!]  that  has  a  palpable  design  upon  us.  Datta  deftly  weavesher  plot  with different  subplots  with  effortless  ease,  and  her  novel  becomes  an  arena  for  girl-women like  Mithi,  and  grown-up women such as her grandmother , Mithi’s mother,  her kitty party  friends,  Rani,  Lekha-di,  Anushree  or  even  the  Frenchwoman  Michele  to  play  out the different shades of a woman’s being. Virginia Woolf, a formative influence on her writings,(  as  the  novelist  had  happily  exclaimed  in  a  tete  â  tete)  had  remarked    in A Room of One’s Own, ‘ . . .we think back through our mother if we are women’. Indeed, Mithi’s personality is conditioned  and customised by her mother who instils in her daughter her exquisite tastes in  music and literature, superb communication skills that make  her  the  cynosure  of  eyes  in  that  hick-town  they  inhabited,  and  her  fortitude  and strength  of  character  that  helps  her  retain  her  selfhood  while  facing  the  vicissitudes  of life. Rani’s mother too stands by her daughter like rock, when rejected by her husband, the impotent self-important doctor, she goes back to her maternal home to give birth to her  love-child  with  her  music –teacher,  Keshab  babu.  Lekha-di  and  her  sister,  Tulu  di who  chose  the  life  of  a  spinster  to  take  care  of  an  ailing  mother  too  are  strong  women who  are  fighters  in  life,  and  death  comes  not  as  a  victorbut  as  merely  a  pause  in  their struggle.

In   fact,   one   of   the   themes   of   the   novel   is   undoubtedly   death,   and   its   different ramifications.  The  novel  records  a  number  of  deaths –beginning with Mithi’s mother and ending with her father’s, with Lekha di’s death, her wayward husband Prabir da’s death and a number of symbolic deaths placed in between. For all of Rani’s Epicurean passion  to  live  and  love,  she  meets  disapproval,  disgrace  and  dejection.  Throttling  her desires  to  feel –as  a  woman,  as  a  wife,  and  even as a mother, Rani’s resignation to herself  to  lead  the  life  of  Mrs  Roy  is  in  many  ways  a  death-in-life  situation.  Her  inner being dies while leaving her love-child in the orphanage to return to her marital home, yet  she  lives    a  non-life  only  to  conformto  the  stereotypical  expectations  of  her  as  a married  woman.  Lekha  di’s  husband  deserts  her  for  another  woman,  and  she  dies

untreated, unattended, on the cold floors of the Calcutta Medical College Hospital much to the relief of her husband, but death to her is also a relief. Mithi’s father’s death on the wedding day of Tubu is really, as the chapter-heading claims, A Bolt from the Blue, but he  too  is  a  warrior  in  life  who  sublimates  over  death.  Having  handled  humiliation  and ignominy  after  a  life-long  commitment  to  the  noble  profession  of  medicine,  Mithi’s father  had  struggled  to  reconcile  himself  to  the  combined  onslaught  of  scheming humans and perverse situations. His death that comes at a dramatic juncture, however, posits him as a winner who finishes his race and then gives himself up. Mithi’s mother’s death,  after  a   sustained   struggle,   both   by  the   mother-daughter   duo,  is   the   most important experience in Mithi’s life that orients her to a new assessment of life. The mourning  that  is  referred  to  in  the  title  follows  this  particular  death  but  it  raises  more questions than it answers.

To a query regarding the title of the novel, the author had responded that she had issues with   the   religious   obsequies   and   rituals   that   prescribed   a   period   of   compulsory mourning for a year after the death of a relative. In the novel, Mithi  is curtly informed by her brother and his wife that since she had taken care of the ailing mother in the final days  of  her  life,  she  has  to  stay  in  the  room  she  shared  with  her  mother  ‘to commemorate the moments she spent’ . Stunned by the mindless cruelty inflicted upon her at this delicate juncture, Mithi’s heartfelt anguish is articulated in block capitals as she  writes,  ‘ONE  YEAR  FOR  CELEBRATING  THE  VACUITY,  ONE  YEAR  FOR REMEMBERING  HER. . .’ while the throbbing pain filters forth in tears that seep through the words. The novelist asked this reviewer whether one year is enough time to weep  away  the  tragic  loss  of  a  mother,  of  a  parent,  of  a  near  and  dear  one?  The  angst that was reflected in the query is also immanent in the writings of Urvashi Butalia, one of the  literary luminaries, Datta claims to be influenced by. Rituals and customs have a strange way of making inroads in human consciousness and an equally strange rationale of  theirown.  While  the  pull  of  the  umbilical  chord  may  be  severed  at  childbirth,  no plausible  time-span,  if  at  all  it  may,  can  reasonably  let  a  son  or  daughter  tide  over  the loss of a mother, or father. Time, one must admit, is relative and doesnot always heal.

The  novel  is  in  many  ways  a  bildungsroman.  Mithis  of  the  world,  called  by  any  name-Kathakali, Michele, Rani, or Tulu, grow up within the pent-up patriarchal walls in much the  same  way  that  the  novelist  has  scrupulously  plotted.  And  so,  in  an  interesting handling  of  time  that  reminds  one  of  the  Bergsonian  perception  of  time,  Mithi’s narrative  is  intertwined  with  Rani’s  without  any  apparent  breaks  or compartmentalisations and Rani’s paramour ,Gautam da’s sheer inability to respond to the  exigencies  of  situation  is  matched  with  the  impotence  of  her  husband,  Dr  Bharat Roy, ‘ a physician of much renown’ in the hick town. In the multiple layers of narrative lie  folds  of  memory  and  remembrance.  The  deft  handling  of  time,  where  past  and present, of Mithi’s story andof Rani’s story exist like the warp and woof of a fabric, bears testimony to the collective unconscious of an individual which throws up so many differently-hued layers into relief. But like an expert danseuse or a painter, the novelist succeeds  in  synchronising  the  diverse  materials  into  a  beautiful  tapestry  of  life.  The novel, as the novelist confided, was engendered by a personal tragedy, and the sense of loss,  disorientation  and  failure  of  find  a  sliver  of  solace  in  the  face  of  humungous  grief are writlarge on the narrative canvas. Neither Calcutta, nor Hridaypur –the small cosy town nestled in North Bengal, nor the misty mountain slopes of the town where Mithi is first  employed  can  offer  her  a  shelter.  The  only  secure  bower  of  bliss  that  she  enjoys  isher  proximity  to  her  mother,  be  it  in  the  comfortable  confines  of  their  home  at Hridaypur (which, in Bengali, means  Heart-town) , or the sea-resort the family visits or while  her  mother  is  undergoing  dialysis  at  the  hospital  in  Calcutta.  Mithi  is  foreverdenied the felicity of having a room of her own, except when she is enforced to spend a solitary mother-less year in the same room she shared with her angel, her mum.

The  narrative  style  is  simple  as  all  elemental  emotions  are.  As  the  plot  and  subplots intertwine  smoothly,  the  characters  too  emerge  out  of  the  text  as  flesh-and-blood individuals.   The   dialogues   are   fraught   with   feelings   and   dramatic   moments   are interspersed with moments of exquisite depiction, either of nature or of natural feelings. Some moments stand out eternalised –the moment when the turbulent love of Rani and Gautam da find fulfilment or the moment when Mithi comes to learn of her mother’s demise.    Such  moments  are  what  make  ordinary  drab  lives  so  mystical,  magical, intensely  personal yet decidedly universal as well. A romantic herself, Datta’s language is  evocative  just  as  her  poetry  is.  Like  her  creator,  Mithi  is  a  poet  at  heart  and  her account of the experiences that enrich her life are dotted with poetry that has potential to  enrichthe lives of the readers. Lines such as ‘Passion has stings,/ Despair too’ and ‘Sometimes I feel/ Dreams are a must/To live a life/Meaningful, divine’ reverberate in the mind, and keep haunting the readers. One Year For Mourningcaptivates the heart whilereading  and  leaves  the  reader  in  a  daze  after  the  actual  reading  experience, wondering whether s/he isn’t too, like Mithi, -‘the lonely bird/In all its escapades (?)


The author

Dr.  Ketaki  Datta  is  an  Associate  Professor  of  English,  BidhannagarCollege,  Kolkata.  She  is  a  novelist, short story writer, critic and a translator. Her debut novel A Bird Alone has won rave reviews in India and abroad. Her poems have been published in anthologies published by Brian Wrixon, Canada. One Year for Mourningis a novel, which contains her multilayered experience with life, immediately after her mother’s demise owing to chronic renal failure. This novel is not biographical though it is replete with the facts of the author’s life.

The Reviewer

Rumpa Das(b.1970) did her graduation and post-graduation from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Ph. D from  Rabindra  Bharati  University,  Kolkata.  Her  doctoral  dissertation  entitled Feminism  and  Motherhood: Some Major Nineteenth Century Profilescharts the interface of feminism and motherhood in the works of Mary  Wollstonecraft,  Dorothy  Wordsworth,  Mary  Shelley  and  Felicia  Hemans.  She  has  about  thirty-five articles in various national and international books and journals, in addition to five forthcoming ones. She has  spokenin  twenty-two  state-level,  national  and  international  seminars  and  conferences.  She  writes poetry,  short  stories  and  reviews.  Her  areas  of  interest  are  Romanticism,  Post-colonialism  and  Media Studies. She is Associate Professor and Head, Dept. of English,Maheshtala College, Kolkata.

’Title: One Year for Mourning
Author:  Ketaki Datta
Publisher: Partridge (A Penguin Random House Company)
Year of publication: 2014
Number of pages:  187.
Available: Amazon

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