Comfortably Numb

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Published on: 04/4/10 12:27 PM

Book review: Lessons in Forgetting by Anita Nair

 Emotions at centrestage

This is Nair’s fourth book and there is no doubt about one thing: she gets better with each one.

Lessons… is a reflective, coming-to-terms sort of novel, in which the main protagonists — a former society wife who can wield a mean skillet and a professor of cyclone studies — keep doing the Kierkegaard thing: looking back to the past to make sense of their lives.

Bags of woe

It is a far from cheerful story, given that Meera’s husband has just walked out on her, their two children and an unusual extended family consisting of Meera’s mother and grandmother. Which puts a new spin on the term “a full plate”, with Meera having to mend or try to mend her children’s palpably bruised souls, heal herself, find a way to stay afloat financially, run the lilac house they all live in…

If Meera’s bag of woes is the repository of heartbreaks big and small, Professor J.A. Krishnamurthy, Jak to friends, carries a heart-wrenching, back-breaking burden. He is on the trail of the sequence of events that led to his young daughter Smriti ending up a catatonic wreck, supine on a bed with her features frozen in a perpetual scream of horror and pain. Revelation must inevitably include more pain and Jak is bracing for that.

Far from cheerful lives yes, but Nair does not let her book acquire a maudlin tone at any time.

Of course Jak and Meera’s lives cross, cross again and, then, loop loosely together. Meera learns the art of coping and Jak learns the art of accepting, of viewing the cyclone (a cyclone past, in this case) with a calm objective eye, evaluating what can be done and what has to be let go of. Other characters come and go, suggesting succour, comfort, disquiet, violence, ravagement, all well-drawn.

Human emotions take centre-stage in this book, overwhelming both action and reaction. The bits that go to make up the details of the characters’ lives, like Meera’s bestselling book, Jak’s papers on cyclones, are but bit players. Nair has said that she wanted Meera and Jak to represent the cyclonic currents of hot and cold air but she hasn’t quite managed to pull that off. Likewise, the constant comparisons of Meera to the Greek goddess Hera, too, come off a tad contrived.

Steady and predictable

But it’s all there in the book: cyclones and catastrophes, man-made and wrought by nature; love, dependency and betrayal, female foeticide, Page Three parties. The narrative steers a steady course for the most part. If the end is predictable, well, sometimes life too, runs on a very predictable track.

So yes, everyone in Lessons gets a second chance. Almost all. It’s a story told at an unhurried pace by an accomplished writer.

Lessons in Forgetting; Anita Nair, HarperCollins, Rs 399.

This ran in THE HINDU of 4 Apr 2010.

Related Links:


Book review: Chain of Custody by Anita Nair


Anita Nairbook reviewfictionLessons in Forgetting

Sheila Kumar • April 4, 2010

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