Amrita: Usha Rajagopalan; Rupa & Co, Delhi; pp 334 Rs 295.00
The days when Indian readers looked upto English writers for fiction are long over. A whole new generation has a galaxy of Indian writers to choose from, starting with Mulk Raj Anand and including a whole lot with names like Santha Rama Rao, Raja Rao, R.K.Narayan and Arundhati Roy. To that long and wholesome list we now can add one more: That of Usha Rajagopalan.
Usha has a style of her own which can roughly be described as Indish. No, this is not Mulk; nor is it R.K.Narayan. It is peculiarly Usha. One suspects that there is no other way for an Indian to write about life in India except in the way Indians speak in an idiom that reflects Indian thinking.
An Indian writer, writing about Indian characters, has necessarily to remember how Indians think-and speak. In this department Usha comes out with flying colours. That, indeed, is her forte. One can easily identify oneself with any of her characters. And they all sound so real. There is Raghu who is in business and is travelling most of the time. There is his deeply disturbed wife, Kamala, ?short and dark, with mid-life spread around her waist, her crumpled cotton sari aggravating the general sense of disarray, as did the little wisps of graying hair that had broken loose from her tight knot.? There is not much love lost between the two. There are often fights. During one of the wordy encounters Kamala tells her husband that he is a selfish man who had married her on the rebound after some woman having ditched him. That is only too true. He did have an affairs with another woman and begot a child by her. That child, Gauri, learns of the illicit love affair her mother had with Raghu and there comes a time when she confronts him with the fact. And this is where the story starts, with Gauri visiting Raghu and Kamala only to learn during her visit another traumatic story that is even more soul-shattering. It is about Kamala'stwo daughters, the elder, Amrita who is mentally deranged and the younger, Maya, who can'taccept the fact of her elder sister'sillness. There are frequent fights between Amrita and Maya. Maya just seems unable to understand why Amrita does not attend school like any other normal girl. When Kamala tries to separate the two girls during their constant fighting, Maya tells her mother of the elder sister: ?She is fooling you. There'snothing wrong with her.?
All that grandma wanted to do was to give plenty of time for Kamala to take care of Amrita. The change of residence certainly helps Maya who, far away from her deranged sister, starts on her long journey to understand what was wrong with Amrita. When, following her grandmother'sdeath, Maya returns to her parents? home, she is a different girl. Where once she would fight with Amrita, now Maya seemed so understanding-and loving. As she told her mother: ?I did it out of ignorance, foolishly trying to imitate the way you and appa behave towards her. Now I know better and I will ensure that no harm ever falls on her again as long as I am with her.? And Maya stood by her words. She would often take Amrita to a nearby Ashram belonging to the Swaminarayan sect. Maya was so caring that it was hard even for Kamala to understand that.
Then came the day of separation. A young man, Ganesh, came forward seeking Maya'shand and not long afterwards the two got married. Maya left her parental home on the night of her wedding but she stayed with Amrita till it was time for her to depart. Kamala had expected her daughter to protest or create a scene that she didn'twant to leave Amrita behind, but Maya was quite composed. As the marriage party was about to leave it was then that Maya began to cry and when the party reached the railway station she was to break down completely. Just like any bride, many remarked. Worse was to follow.
With Maya gone, Raghu and Kamala had gone to bed but were to be awakened by police. Apparently when everyone thought Amrita was in her room, the girl probably thought she would quietly follow her sister. She must have rushed to the railway station, lost her way and got killed by a passing train. Was it suicide? The policeman had an answer. As he told Raghu: ?There'snothing strange about it. Your older girl must have been unhappy about her sister leaving or because she herself was still unmarried. Either way, the feeling was strong enough for her to commit suicide… Such things are not uncommon…? There the story ends.
As told by Gauri who had, during her stay with the Raghu family, come to know a lot of things. Was it suicide, though? That is the great mystery. It would be unfair to Usha Rajagopalan to reveal how the story ends. But let this be said: it is a most dramatic ending. And it is to the author'scredit that she leaves her reader with eyes moist. This is a powerful novel, even, if on occasion, the narrative drags. Gauri had come to visit the Raghus with the specific desire to confront Raghu and the truth about her parentage. She had achieved her purpose to some extent, but in the end she was to go back to her own home carrying the burden of Amrita'stragic death. It is to Usha Rajagopalan'scredit that to the last she has complete hold over her readers. And isn'tthat what a good novelist should be doing?