Book Reviews

Fantastic Longing in The Dark Abode

You feel lost somewhere between the cruel reality of life and dream-like fairy-tale that you wish to live in. (Safiq – p.130)

Erotically titillating books are not new in any language. Sarojini Sahoo’s much publicized novel The Dark Abode published in 2008 is titillating being a unique work in many ways. Originally written in Oriya this work made the traditionally thinking readers raise their eyebrows. But slowly young readers who like love fiction seem to have realized the significance of eroticism what with the line drawings of an American painter drawn with fine expressionistic, surrealistic sensibility. This is taken up a little later.

Sarojini Sahu went on record saying in an interview: “In my novel Gambhiri Ghara (The Dark Abode), my intent was to glorify the power of sexuality. Kuki, a Hindu married woman of India, tries to rectify Safiq, a Muslim Pakistani artist, to keep him from perversion and from becoming a sexual maniac. She convinces Safiq that love lust is like the insatiable hunger of a caterpillar. Gradually they become involved in love, lust and spirituality. Though this is not the central theme of the novel, its broad acceptance of sexuality caused many fundamentalists to react strongly.”

In another interview the writer revealed this: “There have been some interesting happenings with my story writings. Gambhiri Ghara ("The Dark Abode"), the most controversial novel of mine, was first written in a story form and it was written for a special issue of an Oriya periodical. Before the publication of the short story it was rejected and I was asked to submit another story in place of "The Dark Abode". While inquiring for the reason of the rejection of my story, I was told that the editor would talk to my husband. This comment of the chief editor made me irritated and I asked him whether my husband has any authority over my writer self… The patriarchy idea of the chief editor made me transform the short story into a novel.”

A perceptive reading of the novel reveals two layers of presentation: the first a fantasy and the other a middle-class wife-husband relationship in bed and in the mundane life. The fantasy makes the reader go high and higher floating and ultimately getting deflated. Reading a novel, any novel gives jerks, surprises and insights according to the writer’s skill and intention and the reader’s understanding and sensibility. The creative mind slowly and sometimes fiercely flies fast into the nooks and crevices of an unknown number of variations in the temperaments and states of thinking in the characters not always understood by the characters themselves. The minds of the characters are not always clearly charted but then this is not always the limitation of an artist. The mind is a huge vault with hollows and corners with various emotions, feelings, attitudes and fantasies. The minds of the central characters Kuki and Safiq are above the usual morality at a social or intellectual level. A critic cannot find fault with the plot, story line or characterization, the prerogatives of the writer: the plausibility of the creation does not abide our question. The poet’s pen or even a novelist’s for that matter, turns the forms of things into shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. The lovers’ minds have similar faculties of fantasizing. This kind of general introduction to the novel The Dark Abode is necessary.

The technique of every new chapter opening with a repetition of the last sentence of the earlier one is a distinctive way of showing the continuance of the writer’s theme and expression. Kuki and her husband Aniket (with two children) near middle age go to Dhunimal’s gallery in Delhi. Kuki, fascinated by a painting ‘Alienation, - Oil on Canvas’ by Safiq Mohammed published by Pakistani Art Forum, Lahore, buys a print. She knocks at the door of the artist’s consciousness and sends him a mail to the id given in the brochure along with the print. She gets a reply by mail: ‘You are a fairy without wings. But that does not deter you from trying to break free of all shackles. If somebody were to gift you wings, would you come and join me here?’ And Kuki writes back in her reply: ‘My body is too frail for its moods. My ageing flesh follows the demands and diktats of family life. My weary senses return to my courtyard seeking warmth among my kids. Now my wings no longer have their old charisma that I will (sic) fly in response to your call. There is no longer that endless, expansive, azure sky for me, nor (sic) its grand brilliance that would absorb me inside its bosom. But you shot the Cupid’s arrow and a thrill rippled through my body, mesmerizing me; and music of the unforgotten years sounded once again in my soul.’

That Safiq is a Pakistani and a Muslim does not bother the Hindu Kuki. What fascinates Kuki first is the girl in the sketch. We are told: ‘The girl in the sketch had locks of hair hanging down to her shoulder. … A nubile nymphet oozing youth, she was draped in an almost transparent fabric clinging to her every curvaceous contour, revealing more than it was hiding, leaving nothing to imagination. A creeper wound its way round her waist and her navel was tinged with a shade of topaz.

Kuki kept looking at the sketch and tried to find herself in it. Which part of her body did the sketch resemble most? The dark almond shaped eyes? The aquiline neck? The rotund bust? The navel? No, perhaps the resemblance lay in the coy smile. It was that smile that defined his perceptions of her. How could Kuki have concealed it within herself?’ The fact that Safiq is a Pakistani does not bother Kuki. She has read Virginia Woolf and remembers that as woman she has no country and as a woman her country is the whole world. The lovers Kuki and Rafiq have their love dialogue at three levels – the common, ordinary love, ethereal love and sensual love. Kuki goes on sending mails and replies to Safiq’s honey filled missives. Kuki sits at her p.c. when the children are at school and her hubby in his office. Once the lover sends her a poetic proposal: ‘You know, I wish to sketch the most priceless painting of my life with your love. Come close to me, become my skin, my self, my world and bless me with the gift of fatherhood’. She writes back: ‘Ok, I am more than willing to come to you with all my love and dedication and bless you with fatherhood.’

Safiq makes Kuki, Rokshana, and ignites more passion in her. Her house hold chores get neglected and she gets restless. When there are no mails a sense of emptiness troubles her and when one mail comes she sends back a reply that he can call her by any name he wants to. The infatuation with the fantasy of love increases and Safiq makes a clean breast of what his earlier life has been – he had sex with fifty-two different women and asks her if she has such an experience. Then Kuki’s inner self, call it middle-class morality, wakes up. We are told her mind’s working: ‘What does this man think of women? Are they mere commodities, only toys for carnal pleasure for him? What about emotions? … She felt betrayed. Perhaps she was just the next woman on his list, fifty-three; perhaps she meant nothing more than that to him. Paroxysms of grief and loneliness submerged her. This situation makes her go into stoic silence which worries even her children. She thinks of closing the back door of her mind for good. She writes: ‘What is the point of living like a butterfly, of leading life of unbridled enjoyment of female flesh without any emotions or attachments? Do you think I have been attracted towards you in anticipation of physical pleasure? I wish I were aware of all this from the beginning.’ This draws the reply: ‘Yes, I do agree that I have lived a caterpillar’s life… Don’t leave me. I touch your feet with my head; forgive me for my grave deeds. But don’t leave me. And please don’t call me a caterpillar.’

At the level of actuality, Safiq’s wife Tobassum is interested in dating with young men and this does not bother the husband, basically an artist, a painter. Safiq sends a mail to his ladylove telling her about his uttering Rokshana’s name while in bed with her in love play, which only draws a remark from his wife: ‘Why love a woman who can never be yours?’ This remark may be considered a kind of safe permissiveness. Rokshana feels that she got entangled in a mystical love, which it might be. As for Safiq, Kuki’s pictures his children see everywhere do not create any feeling at all. Again, at this level, Aniket, Kuki’s husband is an ordinary man who is bothered about his job, promotion, getting the chance of an assignment abroad etc. He is a wife-beater too – merely for drinking a glass of water in a roadside stall - with no real hatred or ill-will against her. He wakes up in the middle of the night to smear ointment on her cars. In a fit of anger it is Kuki who says: ‘I don’t need your status. I don’t need your love. I don’t want this life.’ However, this is after the beginning of the love online.

The e-mails get reduced in their frequency when Safiq is busy preparing his para-thesis on Islamic art for an assignment in Columbia University. Kuki thinks of Safiq’s wife Tabassum as a woman of dubious character, a manic desperate for sex with several boy friends. Safiq gets busy preparing for his daughter’s wedding. Rokshana’s anger and worry slowly evaporate.

When she is asked for advice she advises as she feels, asking her lover to show affection for his women. The bride to be, is Nagma, daughter of an earlier wife, Nissar. When Safiq sends Kuki a photograph, Rokshana is wild with anger and mails ‘How could you cheat me? Who was that man, and who is the person in the new photograph?’ He sends an immediate reply: ‘I knew something like this would happen. That’s why I was reluctant to send the photographs. … It was a mistake on my part to send you first the photograph, the one taken twenty years ago. …’

At the level of actuality there are troubles and problems both for Safiq and Kuki/ Rokshana. Kuki is a housewife totally dedicated to household chores and her husband and children. Aniket is full of himself and utterly prosaic not giving any prominence or making romantic gestures to his wife. He does not need her for taking decisions, which he took ignoring the wife as many an ordinary male in Indian society. She is there, Kuki feels, to open the door when he returned from the office, keep his tie in position, take his shoes off. Kuki falls for the unseen Safiq for she feels that he needs her emotionally and psychologically. She has arguments with her hubby though she is ignored or marginalised. When Kuki tells how his colleague Mr Das treated his wife, he only shoots back a question as to why she did not marry Mr. Das. Mr. Das does household work and allows his wife to be a socialite. There are moments when Kuki feels that she and her husband are drifting apart. The authorial voice goes: ‘Was Kuki and Aniket drifting apart? … Why did she feel the need to vent all her anger, squeeze out the poison that had remained suppressed for ages? Had all this suddenly gushed to the surface with the arrival of Safiq?’

Safiq once writes in a letter mailed to Kuki that they have been lovers for eight years which makes her think that he is remembering another woman (out of the fifty-two he had sex with) when it has been only one year. For some length of time he is in trouble in Islamabad from the mullahs for painting a goddess. When the number of letters dwindles Kuki wonders as to how long their relationship and love would last. She remembers the Sanskrit slokas which mean where moksha (salvation) is there, there is no living in utmost comfort, when there is living in utmost comfort, there is no moksha and for those who can concentrate in the service (worship) of Sree Sundari both utmost comfort and moksha would be in the palm. She wonders if Safiq knows where life is leading them. When her mother-in-law is ill in their village and Ankit expresses his desire to get her to Mumbai, she is distraught. She feels happy when the old woman wants to stay only in her village. She is worried about reading Safiq’s letters if the old woman is with them in their house. Safiq sends her a letter about his previous lady love Linda in Paris and tells Kuki that her husband is a drunkard and that she filed an application for divorce. She draws his pity. He also writes to Kuki that he uttered her name while enjoying her in bed. She only utters one word, ‘Safiq’. She is familiar with Osho, Kundalini and Tantra but she cannot find a way to explain any of these what with her own mundane things - like Ankit pulling their son’s ears till they bled - bother her. While she is in the dumps Safiq sends her a mail” ‘You Hindus are very orthodox and superstitious’. For Safiq also there are mundane problems and worrying situations like getting arrested by London police after a bomb blast in London. He grows sadder and a little wiser. An artist and also a lascivious womaniser, he feels transformed (so feels Kuki too) and writes to her: ‘With you, Rokshana, I have discovered eternity’.

When a Mumbai rain creates a flood like situation, Kuki becomes apprehensive about her husband’s safety. She gets contrite and feels that if she is widowed, she is utterly helpless. But, Aniket, after returning home quite late though, tells her that he has been in the office and rebukes her: ‘Why do you always have to behave like an idiot?’ When Kuki comes out of her worries and fears in actuality, her mind goes out only as Rokshana’s. After mails stop coming, after a long wait she sends a single line mail: ‘Safiq, how are you? Your Rokshana… After sending the mail, a sudden fear engulfs her. What if Interpol tracked the e-mail down to her IP address? What she would do? Who was this Safiq? What was her relationship with him? Could she face her relatives, family, and above all, her nation? She felt penitent. But what else could she have done?’

Aniket’s problems and his moods are worse than his usually bad ones when he has to go out leaving his family only to Kuwait! He dreams a bad dream and mutters ‘I am not safe at all’. Safiq sends a mail to her saying the same thing first. ‘I am not safe at all. My e-mail and phone calls are under scrutiny. I have lost my job and am ruined. I am a victim of fate, baby. I have lost all hope on humankind, baby’’

The end of the mail from Safiq as an under trial with no charges framed against him is: ‘You know, Rokshana, the nation becomes an enemy of the individual where he has no means left with him. Think of ‘K’in Kafka’s The Trial. I feel like ‘K’ myself.’ This is the existential angst after the perfumed fantasy.

The actuality part with family life, service or servitude, children, responsibilities all need have to be taken in one’s own stride. The complexities - resulting from situations like terrorism, international enmities, domestic, financial problems and under trials finding no light even at the end of the tunnel mar the polychromatic phantasmagoria of impassioned lovers. The darkness of the abode is the actuality, the rest is fantasy. All said and done it is fantasy that keeps lives happy even with online love and longing.

The essay can not be rounded off without an appreciation of the sketches enriching the novel. The line drawings leave some clues making the novel more powerful. The sketches are born as images in a dream. … As to how these images are realized, the artist tells us that he is just not sure. ‘I just watch and wait for something to happen … and something always does.’ What happened is now known to all the readers: The drawings are expressionistic, and some even surrealistic, showing a highly personalised vision of the female nude.

The first sketch before chapter one is possibly a yakshini – call her by name and she would appear. You can gaze upon her face and see her beauty. The second on page 23 is obviously Eve in her original nudity between the apple and the snake. Then there is one with hands uplifted, possibly trying to fly. All the rest are torsos, headless, with either one breast or breasts as well as pubis, sometimes with a single hand or a pair with eyes and nose between. There is one p.67 with just the head of a woman in deep sleep. The sketches of nudes with hands above head are thought provoking.

The reader is often given a chance or a clue to imagine or conceive the character and sensibility of the female. The one on p.89 indicates a shrinking body. The one on p.97 with two heads and two breasts, one body erect and the other supine in the air with one head touching the other is very suggestive again. The drawing on p.105 is one of a nude seated on a couch with one foot raised looking lost in thought is impressive and is possibly meant to make the reader imagine someone. On p.111 there are three ugly headless forms two with heads not clear and one with an arm perhaps chopped. All the pictures suggest thinly, distantly or indicatively. The one on p113 is slender plant growing towards the sky from the vaginal orifice. This could be indicative of a sexual orgy.

The one p.133 is a female lying down under the sky with a star and a crescent on a side. On page 139 a female with a head which does not have either the eyes or lips is sitting on a bed with a crescent on a block a little away. A faceless nude is standing between a jug and a lighted candle on page 147. On p.153 another nude is shown with a plant growing on her pointing finger. Another nude is there on p.159 appearing to be swimming with no water underneath but a tree and a crescent near. On p.165 there is a surrealistic nude with one breast and a pair of lips lying on a side with hair flowing downwards. The final one on p.169 is a nude lying down with an empty and blank face, back raised against something by the side of the moon.

The incidents in the chapters after the drawings have no clearly indicative relationships but it is natural since the novel and the drawings are not planned together at all. The novelist used a sketch before the beginning of each chapter. The frontispiece again is an enticingly suggestive drawing of a female nude with breasts and the pubis in colours.

One word in conclusion. Readers abroad may think that our publications do not get any copy-editing. Indian publications in number are fast increasing. But proof reading is not always efficient. No good writer can trust himself or herself as a perfect proof reader. It requires special competence, not every writer’s cup of tea. It is hoped that the novel goes into several editions and the new issues would first make good copy-editing necessary.

Sahoo Sarojini, The Dark Abode, Translated by Mahendra Kumar Dash,
Indian Age Communication, Vadodara -390 010 Gujarat, India,
First Edition , October 2008, ISBN 978-81-906956-2-6


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

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 3390      Comments: 2

Comment dear mr baker
thanks for your comment
literary translation - particularly of fiction - is a very arduous task and in most cases a thankless job.
but in our country we have 24 accepted, highly well-treated languages and without translation into english the readership would be slender
i have written articles/ reviews on 12 indian regional languages and all the translations are acceptable to me for there is no other way of reading novels in all regional languages.
i admire your interest on our people, particularly writers like sarojini sahooo who brave even unfriendly criticism
rama rao

dr v v b rama rao
02-Jun-2013 23:55 PM

Comment terrific review/"take" on the novel and the drawings.

I've redrawn each piece and scanned it in an higher resolution and retitled the run-of-sketches : SHAKTHI

I agree that for us English-American readers a more precise translation would be greatly appreciated. This novel would make a nice underground film-noir .... in black and white

thanks Dr. Vadapalli, best Ed Baker

Ed Baker
02-Jun-2013 17:49 PM

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