Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

Here is another example of a major literary prize bringing to my attention a new author. Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced in the first week of June.

When I Hit You
Juggernaut Books Hardback Edition

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a raw and visceral story of an abusive marriage. It is also a novel that explores how writing helps the woman, the unnamed narrator, find solace and make sense of what is happening.

When the novel opens, we already know that the unnamed narrator managed to walk out of this violent marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

My mother has not stopped talking about it.

Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.

The mother prefers her story telling in metaphors and finds various ways to convey how her daughter suffered in her marriage without really finding the need to explicitly dwell on the actual chain of events.

But the narrator is having none of it. She is firm that she must write her own story.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.

We learn how the narrator meets her abusive husband – she was a student then leaning towards the Left, and he was a revolutionary who seduced her with his ideas.

He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they came and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile. He had been a Naxalite guerilla (‘Maoist,’ he corrected me). An underground revolutionary. He had assumed at least ten different names in three years. The element of danger provided an irresistible aura around him. I loved this sense of adventure. I loved his idealism, I found the dogmatic obsession endearing.

They marry and it all begins to unravel. He gradually starts controlling her. It begins in a relatively minor but incredibly frustrating way. He forces her to close down her Facebook account, keeps tabs on her emails and her phone calls. The narrator begins to find her herself isolated as she is cut away from any meaningful contact with the outside world.

But as the days go by this escalates into full blown abuse – beating and rape.

He is channelling his anger, practicing his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

Kandasamy’s storytelling is non-linear. This means that while we do get an idea of the chain of events, the story is not narrated in the order in which these events occurred. Rather Kandasamy picks up various themes and each chapter is dedicated to that.

Thus, in one chapter the narrator focuses on the tumultuous two year relationship she has with a much older politician much before her marriage to her current husband. She talks about her naivete and what she assumes to be love, only to realize that when pushed towards making a choice, the politician goes for his career.

In another chapter, the narrator talks about the letters she writes to ‘lovers she has never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers she invents on a lonely morning.’

But in every chapter there is always a sense of menace lurking around, that uneasy feeling of an impending disaster ahead. Indeed, the chapters which focus on the actual physical violence and rape are quite gut-wrenching and disturbing.

However, the narrator finds some sort of meaning in her chosen profession – writing. Writing helps her deal with her suffering and pain, something her husband does not like, instead finding ways to thwart her at every turn.

I cannot agree with what he has to say. To me, it sounds strange, alien almost, to imagine that my poem will be the source of future trouble, that a poem will prevent us from healing.  The poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.

Despite such a gruesome subject matter, the story is not without hope. After enduring so much, the narrator manages to walk out of the marriage in the nick of time. And her parents finally support her, even though they were slow to accept the realities much earlier on for fear of being judged by Indian society.

Of course, when the topic is as grim as an abusive marriage, any novel can come across as nothing but a misery memoir.

But not in Kandasamy’s hands. She writes with poetic intensity and grace, and her intelligence simply shines on every page. Her prose is lush, and her narrative quite compelling making you want to keep turning the pages.

It seems that Kandasamy is examining every facet of this doomed marriage from an angle – writing is something that helps her do that – as she ponders over her role as a housewife which her husband chains her to, the pressure on her to produce a child, and her parents’ initial reaction to her abuse telling her to bear with it in the hopes that the husband will turn over a new leaf. In a culture where divorce has negative connotations, and given they are in denial, they would rather their daughter stick it out rather than be berated by society.

Kandasamy also reflects on the right of a woman to express desire, and how in many cases it is always assumed to be a man’s prerogative.

When I Hit You in many ways is autobiographical – Kandasamy was the victim of an abusive marriage. But she refused to bow down, crafting instead a powerful novel in a unique voice. And she brought to the fore the sad truth that even educated women can become victims of domestic violence – both physical and mental.