Book Reviews

Unravelling the Coil

Paramours in Sethu’s Novel Pandavapuram

This place was also getting to be both real and unreal at the same time, like Pandavapuram. Which was the truth? Which was the lie?

He lost himself in the question, unable to answer it.

Complexity and the quality of being uncertain with ambiguity and intrigue in fiction always appeal to the thoughtful readers. There are novels by foreigners with this kind of writing which can be described as Kafkaesque. Indian English fiction in the recent years is comparable to the Western when we read a novel like Pandavapuram by Sethu, a Malayalam writer. Its translation by Prema Jayakumar was published by Macmillan India in 1995.

The very first sentence begins to enthrall the reader: “Last night, as I lay waiting for the usual nightmare, Pandavapuram came into my mind, scattering many colored glass pieces of extraordinary memories.” The words nightmare and memories do not allow the reader to put down the novel. The title is familiar because of the Pandavas from our epic The Mahabharata. This is the first time the reader reads the name of this place and the anxiety to know what happens next grows. Sethu is considered the best of the modern Malayalam (the language of the people of Kerala) fiction. Is Pandavapuram a part of a dream, is it real, imaginary or part of a nightmare? It may be all or any. The introduction by V.C. Harris prepares the reader’s mind calling it “a typical Sethu text which plays with the real and the unreal in such a way as to create a kind of ‘magical realist’ effect, but a magical realism that is steeped in local legends, myths, folk beliefs and practices.”

The story line is not complex but surely the narration is. Devi is married to Kunhikuttan whom she calls as per tradition Kunhikuttettan. He belongs to the Kalarippadam family which has a sense of pride as we see later. Kunhikuttan disappears after his wife gets pregnant. She gives birth to a son, Raghu, who is about seven in the narration. Devi gets a teacher’s job with the help of a distant relation and looks after her sister-in-law Shyamala and mother-in-law a decrepit, deaf old lady. Shyamala calls her sister-in-law Deviedathi, elder sister. The reason for her husband’s deserting her is conveyed to a stranger who visits the village to see Kunhikuttan’s friend. But then the wonder is that there is no Pandavapuram and no visitor. But the unnamed visitor stays in Devi’s house and the two have conversations and the visitor narrates stories to Raghu and Shyamala also. Devi tells them that her husband Kunhikuttan and she lived in that place where her husband worked in a factory. At that time the visitor lived next door to them. All the concocted stories are from Devi’s mind. Devi, the reader finally understands, is psychotic, hysterical and mad at different times.

Unni Menon Master, tells the visitor about Kalarippadam family and Devi also: ‘“Just look at her,” he hears Unni Menon mutter, ‘Has hardly enough to eat and thinks she is Urvasi.”’ He gives a description of Kunhikuttan’s attitude towards his wife: “His stupidity hardly bears discussion. If she put kohli in her eyes, if she wore a puttu, is she wore a new sari, he would get suspicious. He felt that his wife’s family had tricked him into marrying her by giving him some magic potion. The pujari gave him a plantain. As soon as he ate it, he started feeling odd. According to him this was because they had put some sort of spell in the plantain.”

Devi goes often to the railway station and sits on a bench waiting for the train to come. When the station master asks Devi why she has been coming and waiting on the platform she replies with the often seen and unnecessarily felt arrogance: ‘Yes, I am expecting someone. My paramour.’ The station master is nonplussed. Devi tells the reader that her mind sobbed in despair she tried to build Pandavapuram. The author built the tale with meticulous detail linking it to the five brothers in Mahabharata and Devi becoming Draupadi herself. In this construct there is a Durga temple too and Devi says: ‘I cannot forget him. Kunhikuttettan and I had gone to the Devi temple on top of the hill inn his horse cart.’

The temple is her imaginative creation, a fantasy. The reader can call it magical realism too. As she expects and wishes, the paramour comes searching for her and running into Unni Menon Master and the Master becomes an enemy. Later Karayogam Secretary and Kurupettan, Vice-President come to the visitor in her house and ask him to go away without causing disrespect the family of Kalarippadam. All things are realized soon as Devi’s creations with the author’s consummate skill of narration. After Unni tells the visitor about Kunhikitten the narrator takes over: ‘It was dark. He looked outside a little nervously. … Kunhikuttan, Devi, spells, Pandavapuram the inevitable fate of being a paramour, they were all entangled in a series of incidents which had no logic to them. … A black force hovered overhead here too like the yellow demon that hung over the colony at Pandavapuram with its mouth wide open. The poor ignorant people, on whom its burning gaze fell, did all sorts of peculiar things none of them logical. Even otherwise, there was such a lot that was not logical in this world.’ The author is conscious of the magic he is creating to convey the feeling of empathy for a wronged woman who had no other go except living in a world of fantasy.

The reader is told: ‘The Pandavapuram of those who long for love, those who pretend love, of cheats, of murderers, of those with the death-wish. There is another sentence in another paragraph, just to indicate it is Devi’s: ‘My beloved Pandavapuram. Pandavapuram which takes form in the minds of those who seek consolation.’ The second too may be the author’s voice. This is the secret of the writer’s skill.

The visitor and Devi have a conversation in which he tells Devi “‘It was not the thought of the old world ideals like chastity that held me back. I could not even think of spoiling your purity. I liked you, just for the sheer pleasure of liking you.’ which only makes Devi explode: ‘If that is so … why are you so late? How many years is it since I returned from Pandavapuram with a small child? … I waited so many days for you. I waited for a letter every day. I went each evening to the railway station to wait for the train from the north. Affection … This place was also getting to be both real and unreal at the same time, like Pandavapuram. Which was the truth? Which the lie?’”

The characters in the novel other than Devi and the visitor who speak are Shyamala, Kunhikuttan’s sister and Raghu his daughter, the stationmaster and Kurupettan the vice-president of Karayogam, a local society, and Unni Menon Master. Shyamala tells the visitor that she has completed school and sits there wasting her life. She asks the visitor as to what happened in Pandavapuram and whether there is place like that and is told” ‘Deviedathi says a lot of things. Or. Just take it that there is no place like that. Still, there’s nothing wrong in believing that it exists, is there? Like a dream in the early hours of dawn which keeps you haunting you throughout the day.’

This is the piece of advice by the author too to the reader. The visitor tells her about the Pandavas wandering there, the white sahibs, the cleared forest and factories coming up there. Shyamala tells the visitor that she heard Muthassi say that Ettan used to be very wilful and stubborn from the time he was a child. She also tells him that Deviedathi has never gone to Pandavapuram and that she has never left house and gone anywhere since she got married and laughs. The author tells the reader that the visitor had no reply for that and felt beaten. The visitor has only this to say: ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ then he feels disturbed. He asks himself if he should return by the next train. The reader is told: ‘He clenched his teeth at his helplessness and tried to bury the memories of Pandavapuram in the depths of his mind. But he knew, as hard as he tried to bury them, the enchanting memories of Pandavapuram would surge up with renewed force.’

The visitor falls into thought while strolling that to create a past that did not exist is even more difficult than to live through the real one, which indicates that the visitor himself is unreal. What goes on in the visitor’s mind is this:

‘A new past each for Kunhikuttan, Devi and Raghu. Colorful pasts which were not familiar even to them. The idea attracted him.

Had Kunhikuttan actually lived like that?

But no! He should not ask questions. Stories do not permit questions. A past which does not seem very improbable – yes, that would do.’

Devi’s thoughts are cleverly presented to the reader with the writer’s device to show them a little separately from the narrative. Devi tells herself when the visitor is in his room:

‘Did I not invoke him here for such a confrontation? Have I not longed to grind this Kunhikuttettan’s, every male hood into the dust under my feet?

God give me strength, O Goddess!

The dark day was melting into the river.

There is a whole chapter on a blacksmith and a paramour whose eyes are gouged by him with hot iron rods suspecting him to be the one who impregnated his wife. It turns out later that she has not gone pregnant at all. Even before the tale is narrated, the readers are revealed: ‘Like many stories about Pandavapuram, here also, the borderline between truth and falsehood becomes thinner and thinner as you go on. ‘This may be a curse of the race of paramours.’

Devi’s fate it seems to be that she is hated, disliked or maltreated by people around. Her husband deserted her and a member of that Kalarippadam family Unni Menon Master also dislikes her. He it is who wants to safeguard the honour of the family by sending away the visitor for there are two young women in the house, Devi and young Shyamala. He first threatens the visitor but finding him strong turns back. Still he is the one responsible for Karayogam officials to go to the visitor to frighten him.

The visitor loves Raghu. He narrates to him and Shyamala the story of the Pandavas which electrifies them. He, being Devi’s’mental creation, makes Draupadi very strong and self-asserting. Goes on the visitor telling his two listeners: ‘The five sons had forgotten one thing in the bustle of their preparation for the battle – to ask the woman which of them she loved best. As far as they were concerned, she was only a beautiful, lifeless doll for them to play with, to fight over. Her feelings did not concern them. Finally, one day, at an unexpected moment, she exploded. She called for her five men and made them stand in a row before her. Looking them in their faces, she said, “I hate you, all of you, equally. I despise you as I would despise worms, as I would despise spoilt rotten food.”’ The reader would easily identify this venom in Devi owing to her frustration, utter helplessness and thirst for wreaking vengeance as she expresses many a time. Like the goddess on the hill, Durga, she wishes to become the protector of the downtrodden women by crushing all her paramours one after another and make them hide their heads under the sand.

When Shyamala tells her that she is only addling her brains, thinking of all kinds of things, Devi tells her that she is not one to be tricked. Shyamala firmly believes that Pandavapuram is the visitor’s concoction and his trick to lure her Edithi. Thus goes the writer: “‘I did not fall for any trick, Shyamala.’ Devi spoke in a dreamlike voice as though she was sorting through her memories. ‘I have been weaving a net for years. Just to trap this man. I had never seen him in person before. Before I knew that he would come here one day and that he would fall into my net. … I was waiting, not for your brother, but for this man. I sat alone on the bench in the railway station many evenings, awaiting his arrival….’

While the dialogue between Edathi and Shyamala is going on the visitor enters wearing a white dhoti and a white shirt and carrying his overnight bag. He tells her that he is going, since he does not want to cause trouble to the family or damage her reputation. Face hardened, Devi says in a harsh voice: ‘Let me tell you something. Don’t hope for impossible things. … I have invoked you and brought you here into this net which I have been weaving for years. Do you think you ca break the bonds so easily?16 The visitor stands like a fool and an old memory creeps into his mind of the way she crushed him once before the flame of the camphor, the flame-like form of a woman, clothed in red, hair spread loose, forehead reddened with kumkum.

“He felt like joining his hands in worship.

He murmured, “Goddess, oh mother, protect me.” His throat was parched.’

The visitor flatters Devi saying that she is a good story teller but she is not easily duped.

‘She was quiet for some time and then continued, “Do you remember the story of that young man who was your ancestor. The young man whom the blacksmith ….”

“I’ve heard the story. But it is just a story. There is no such race of paramours.”

“All stories are just stories. Yours, mine, and that of Pandavapuram and even of this world …”

Devi accuses the visitor of cowardice. “You are about to say that we had never slept with each other, aren’t you? And that is true. That is my biggest failure. … You were such a coward that you could never storm into my room through the back door that I left open often. You did not have the guts to fill my veins with the fire of a male…” When the visitor screams asking her to stop, she becomes even more ferocious. Asked by him as to why she is saying all that she becomes vehemently emotional. “Why? Do you want to know why? I want to defeat you, I want to stamp you underfoot. I want to dance like Durga on your naked body, to wear the kumkum of your blood, wear your intestines like garlands, not just yours but that of every man like you.” She asks him the shut the window and then the reader is told that the sparks of desire that shot out from those eyes, those lips created a pyre around. “And then he fell in the pyre wearily.” This is the most powerful piece of writing that shows what a woman could be when roused beyond all controls when there are situations like those Devi faced. Even though they are just a matter of her fantasy, they are not less scathing and burning to the reader’s mind.

But, for Devi her victory appeared in fructuous. It is her mind that speaks: “Was this vengeance? At whom was this vengeance aimed? At Kunhikuttettan? At this weak paramour? At a number of relationships of which even she had no idea?”

Devi becomes totally distraught and goes into dreams which are hallucinations:

“Pandavapuram, which I had built with handfuls of hope piled one over another, has now become a truth which startles even me. I dream about Pandavapuram now. I think only about Pandavapuram. As I dream and dream, Pandavapuram becomes a truth.

“Pandavapuram is a consolation – only a consolation. Pandavapuram takes shape in those minds that are in need of consolation.”

In a paroxysm of fury and disgust in her psychotic dream, she sees her past husband in a shadow and hears his voice. She tells him that his seed sprouted in her womb. She kept the fetus gifted by him a prisoner in her. She reminds him how he exploded when he heard of the sprout, perhaps thinking that it must be the act of a paramour, since he does not have the ability. She taunts him saying that out of the many paramours one is in the next room. With cruel pleasure she harangues: “You desire me now, don’t you? Don’t try to hide it. I have understood you. After years, on this night wet with the rain, you stole into the compound and knocked at my window. For what else could it be? Having given up the rights of a husband, you came and asked me to open the door with all the nervousness of a paramour, for nothing else. I have been observing that pathetic desire which shone out of your eyes since you came here. If you still want me, I shall tell you an easy way. I shall give you place among the innumerable paramours who parade in formation before me. But, on one condition. Your place will be at the end. Though you are an old husband, you too have the obligation to keep to the queue…”

Devi’s talk goes on like this and Shyamala pushes the door open and comes in. The reader is told that Devi is looking towards where Kunhikuttan has been standing till then and that he has melted through the window. Shyamala asks in surprise as to who she is talking to and Devi replies: “To your brother,” in a quiet voice. Shyamala switches off the light saying it is late. We are told that as Devi lies sleepless, a row of young men march in Devi’s mind – the paramours of Pandavapuram.

Devi is not always psychotic or mad. She is bold, fearless, sarcastic and tactful. When Karayogam dignitaries come to see her, she tackles them tactfully. She asks them if they are sent by Unni Menon. When one of them says that their family has respect and if through her that is lost, she does not allow him to go further he asks him ‘What do you say I have done?’ When one says that they came to convey a final warning and talks of respectability: “Respectability,” Devi felt like laughing. “Everybody is respectable in daylight. It’s in the dark that the masks fall. He (Unni Menon) knows that I shall pick up a broom if he enters this house. That is why he swore the oath (not to enter to her house). When Shyamala asks her sarcastically if she could defeat her brother: “No, I did not,” Devi dsaid. “He buried his face in the sand and surrendered.” Her voice hardened again suddenly. Her face became serious. She said with vigour, “But it is not too late yet. I won’t permit him to leave here. I shall awaken the ego of his masculinity and then stamp again and again on it, till I have ground his hood into the mud.”

The visitor is utterly crestfallen lost all hope of even returning to his place. This is what we read of him: “The fabulous world of Pandavapuram had already disappeared from his consciousness. It vanished into the heap of other unreal dreams and was covered with dust. Only one truth existed before his eyes now. The truth of the magic circle which he could not cross. And Devi who controlled it with her long fingers. Her nails from which blood oozed. She now had the face of a vulture. Between the blood red beaks, a life dangles like a black charm hung on hair-thin strings.”

The last chapter brings fictional life to normalcy to some extent. Devi wakes up and comes out of her room finding none in the next bed. Raghu comments that she has slept heavily. We find that Devi would never be normal. She goes on asking Shyamala how he (the visitor) could go without her permission. When Shyamala tells Devi that she has never gone to Pandavapuram, she would not even hear her. When she sees Shyamala going into the house, wiping her eyes wordlessly, Devi feels like laughing and says to herself silently “Poor girl! The man had destroyed all her memories of him.”

Devi going once again to the railway station finds the Vice President of Karayogam at the bus stop who is wonderstruck when she says that they came to her house. The ticket collector (his daughter Malu tells him that their teacher Devi has not been coming to school for some days) says to her: “I hope you don’t mind if I tell you something. Only I know that you come and sit here every day. I haven’t told anyone either. But, you shouldn’t come and sit here every day like this. If people get to know of this…”

Devi hopes he would come. “Perhaps tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the day after that”

It is interesting to note K.P. Appan’s comment that Devi’s “fantasies are a searing critique of the institution of monogamy on the one hand and on the other, an expression of her desire to time-travel back to a tribal past where polyandry is believed to be the norm rather than an aberration.”

Works cited

1. V.C. Harris, Introduction, Pandavapuram, pp.xi-x
2. Pandavapuram, Sethu, Macmillan India, New Delhi, 1995, p.14
3. Appan K.P, Introduction. p.x


More by :  Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B.

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