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Tales that tell the truth

Kusum Sawhney's latest novel attempts once again to shake people out of their complacency. The controversial author tells ATIKA RAO


`Ayala' is no nice story. I never wanted to write one Kusum Sawhney



OUTSIDER'S GLANCE: Kusum Sawhney says she is chronicling the social events of urban India PHOTO: SANDEEP SAXENA

Kusum Sawhney's first novel candidly - and infamously - centred upon women's sexuality.

Unusual candour persists to characterise her latest offering too: "Ayala", a fictional account built around domestic abuse and the sexual politics therein, taking unnatural recourse to incest and violence. Evidently, Kusum has gained attention, like she did previously.

Before you read a pattern in the publicity, she can explain. "It is deliberate in the sense that yes, I am choosing to be provocative. I am aware that I am addressing women's issues, and these deep-felt issues like incest are my priority. I deliberately want to shake people out of their indifference."

Unsettling fiction

Many real incidents of trauma have been strewn together for the eponymous protagonist. The fiction these facts beget is equally unsettling. The story is replete with ugliness, growing darker every page.

Ayala's innocence is not only lost but vandalised. Palpable violence runs through it, and yet the narrative is effectively dry-eyed, un-maudlin, matter-of-fact and lucid.

"The subject matter is heavy. That's why my style remains simple, so that meaning comes through easily. As for matter-of-fact rendition, Ayala begins to narrate when she has picked the right lesson from the past without harking back to it. You know, Ayala means gazelle (an antelope variety) - a soft, timid animal - and timidly Ayala begins." However, with sustained onslaughts, the baser animal instincts take over and the timid gazelle learns to survive. Thankfully the gazelle does not negate its natural traits to settle personal vendettas in the style of a tigress, and it takes a pragmatic run, rather it transcends.

"`Ayala' is no nice story. I never wanted to write one. A reader came to me saying she was disgusted when she read the first rape scene and I said, `Well! That is exactly how I wanted you to feel'," says the U.K.-born Sawhney, who has spent a good number of years in Africa, before finally settling in India, Delhi being her base now for 15 years.

With not a trace of contrived accent, she remains pleasantly `Indian', yet endows herself with the epithet of an outsider.

Indeed, she has been able to utilise this distance to her advantage, for being an outsider she has cast a glance, which being too close turns myopic. "India is changing very rapidly. Its undercurrents fascinate me. I am chronicling the social events of urban India. I came in when social snobbery was rampant, and AIDS was taboo. These things stirred me."

"I have spent considerable years in Africa. I have seen other third world issues very closely. Resurgence, folk tales, vibrancy. Nadine Gordimer, Daurice Lessing, Alice Walker are some of my favourite authors."

Fitting image

Befitting similarly this feminist concern is Rekha Rowdittiya's image on the cover, a contemporary feminist painter voicing similar issues through visual arts.

A lone woman clad in earthy ochres, her bodily proportions deliberately tweaked to ugliness, sets a scissor to her white dupatta of innocence while the colour red inundates the background, threatening to engulf her existence as well, her skin already turned to the same.The launch of the book saw actor-director-playwright Sita Raina perform a dramatised reading. "The topic demanded serious attention. The usual launches end up as parties. Sita is a powerful actress, she brought about meanings between truth and hiding." Slotted by some as the child of a lesser god, Kusum remains undaunted by her detractors. Dismal readership doesn't faze her either.

"I don't know statistics, but look at the profusion of book stores, the awareness levels. I am sure there will always be enough takers for good fiction."

Like there may be for her children's stories that lie in the offing, reports this mother of an eight-year-old son. "In any case, I have always preferred short stories as a medium, a craft I find very challenging."

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