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Nandini Nayar : Ranjit Lal’s Survival Fiction



Cover of Ranjit Lal's novel. Credit - penguinbooksindia.com




Between Sentiment and Sensation

Ranjit Lal’s two novels Faces in the Water (FW hereafter) and The Battle For No.19 (TBFN19 hereafter) both have survivors at the heart of them – the girls who survive the murderous mob in the former and Gurmeet, who survives the discovery of his parents’ murderousness in the latter. This article argues that the survival narratives of the protagonists in both the books can only be perceived through (i) sensationalization and (ii) sentimentalization of events. These features of the narratives are integral to arriving at an understanding and acceptance of the very act of survival. 

TBFN19 opens with descriptions that create a familiar, peaceful setting. The girls, on their way home after an educational trip, are driving into Delhi. The laughter and jokes they share, the healthy respect they have for their teacher and their families, left behind in the hills, all form the contours of settings familiar to them. The road they are driving down is familiar too. It is against this familiar world that the horrific events unfold. The girls notice that ‘The road was strangely empty for the time of day’, implying that there was an accepted norm for that time of the day, a norm that is being violated. The shops, which are normally open at this time, are closed, and there are ‘little clusters of men huddled here and there, muttering among themselves’ (page 4) – the departure from the accepted norm suggesting that some sensational event has occurred. 

FW begins with the narrator, fifteen year old Gurmeet, declaring that his family has only had sons born into it and that people in their family rarely fall ill. These statements provide information about his family and form the boundaries of a familiar, easily recognized domestic setting of the family. However, just as the empty roads introduce an element of unease into the familiar in TBFN 19, here the idea that for centuries only male children have been born into a family suggests something not quite all right.

The setting of the two novels is firmly established from the beginning and readers recognize the domestic and familiar nature of the world that is being introduced. It is against this world that the horrific events unfold. Vivid descriptions help create an atmosphere that contrasts with the everyday world that has just been established. 

In TBFN19 the atmosphere is created by descriptions of a man on a motorbike who hurls a petrol bomb at the girls in their van. There is ‘a thunderclap explosion’ (page 5) and the girls in the van feel the impact of the bomb. Amidst the sounds of screaming, glass shattering and the ‘shrill yelping of a terror-stricken dog’ (page 5), the familiar world rocks on its axis and is transformed. Miss Aruna, the girls’ teacher, urges the Sikh driver Kartar Singh to drive away. The van hurtles down the road, and several times it ‘careened into narrow residential street’ till it brakes, ‘its tyres squealing’ (page 6-7). These descriptions add to the sensational nature of the chase and increase the impact of seeing the men standing in the middle of the road. The beauty of the road ‘one of those beautiful tree-shrouded avenues of New Delhi’ (page 7), acts as a contrast to the menace suggested by men standing in the middle of the road and increases the impact of the sinister purpose behind the blockade. The presence of metal barrels and ‘two burnt scooters and a still smouldering small light-blue car, billowing black smoke’ (pages 7-8) disrupts the quiet scenic setting and furthers the sense of impending doom. And the men, ‘brandishing iron rods, hockey sticks and cricket bats, flashing vicious knives, standing there and waiting for them, waving them down arrogantly and chanting manically: ‘Khoon ka badla khoon!’ (page 8) bring home to the girls that something out of the ordinary is to happen. The evil intention of the men is clear, when they ‘swarmed’ over the jeep ‘like ants on a dying bee’ (page 8). The violence of their actions, conveyed through words like ‘yanked’, ‘dragged’ and ‘ripped’ is intensified when the girls hear the ‘sickening dull crunch as ribs and bones and skull cracked and splintered and then he – big, belly-laughing Kartar Singh - was screaming like a schoolgirl – like one of them, as the knives went in and out and the blood began gushing down his head and face, dyeing his snowy beard scarlet.’ (page 8) Kartar Singh’s good humour and kind nature are both transformed by the violence of the attack mounted on him. Despite this he continues screaming, “Get out… run! Run! Go!” (page 9) 

The madness of the mob serves to jolt the girls out of the sense of comfort that is built up. The house that the girls seek refuge in is described as, ‘a peaceful golden-yellow’ set in ‘spacious grounds’ and with well tended flower beds, ‘the lawn neatly mown and obviously watered’ (page 12). In other words, a well-maintained house that the girls believe contains adults who can offer security. Once inside the house the girls are impressed by the opulence they see everywhere. The description of the room suggests wealth, with the comfortable sofas, beautiful chandeliers, and gigantic aquarium with glittering tropical fish. The kitchen too, shows evidence of plenty, with cupboards filled with all manner of essential supplies and the fridge stocked with cooked food items. The house is luxuriously furnished, with every kind of comfort necessary and it helps, for a short while, cushion the girls from the horrors they have witnessed. While the familiarity of the house and all it contains help the girls feel at home very quickly (they find tools when they need them, the ingredients required to bake a cake and even fish food for the fish in the aquarium), this very familiar space becomes the cause of fears and tensions. The emptiness of the house makes the girls worry about the owners and what has happened to them. The name of the owner on the nameplate, the family pictures scattered around the house – all these familiar elements become loaded with potential sensational possibilities. The owner’s name can help identify him as belonging to the Sikh community and make the house a target for the rioters. 

In FW the idea that for centuries only male children have been born into the family introduces an element of strangeness into the narrative. The well is the first indication that something odd has occurred in the house. The manner in which Gurmeet has been kept in the dark about the location of the well, the surreptitious manner in which Gurmeet looks for the well, even the way he thinks of it as the ‘mysterious, forbidden well’ (page12), transforms the well from its ordinary familiarity as just a source of water, and grants it mysterious powers. When Gurmeet peers in, expecting to see only water, he is shocked to find ‘the faces of three strange girls’ (page 13) looking up at him from the depths. The well, generally perceived as a life-giving source, suddenly becomes something else altogether. The appearance of the three girls at the bottom of the well works at creating a sensational effect, primarily because this goes against the expectations one has of wells. 

The sensational account of Gurmeet’s discovery is intensified by the matter-of-fact manner in which the three girls talk among themselves and the familiarity with which they address Gurmeet. They appear to have been waiting to greet him and one of them even holds a placard welcoming Gurmeet. This detail - so familiar to people arriving by trains or aeroplanes – provides the familiar and domestic background to the bizarre events that are unfolding. Gurmeet reacts by ‘reeling back’ (page 15) and wondering if he has sunstroke or needs to rest a little. He decides to get rid of the faces and does this by throwing a rock into the water. This does not work and instead Gurmeet is asked to apologise to the girls. But Gurmeet has only one thought – ‘I just had to get rid of them, whatever they were.’(page 16) He decides to use his air pistol for the purpose and bemoans the fact that, ‘…it could only shoot one pellet at a time, not go bratatatatat like an AK47.’ His rather sensational means of trying to get rid of the faces in the water is combated by equally sensational and unexpected means. Suddenly, Gurmeet feels ‘a terrific blow on my arm and the pistol went flying. Someone kicked me hard in the chest, sending me flying back to land on my back in the dust, gasping for breath.’ (page 16) 

One can also see an attempt to sensationalize characters by focusing on their physical appearance. Thus Surinder Aunty, Gurmeet’s Uncle Balvinder’s wife, is described as ‘a warthog with a painted face, what with her orange hair and small black eyes.’(page 3)

Her physical appearance, we are told, more than matches her personality, for the narrator tells us that she could be ‘as dangerous and unpleasant’ (page 3) as the warthog. What is interesting is that this Aunt is a gynecologist and has, in fact, helped at Gurmeet’s own birth. Both her physical appearance and her nature (she is a suspicious, unpleasant woman, bent on fulfilling the Diwanchand legacy of never having a girl born into the family) are at odds with her profession and this provides readers with another sensational contrast. Lajwati, her assistant in the birthing process, is described as a ‘huge, stegosaurus of a woman, with bulging yellowish eyes that tended to swivel in different directions, so you didn’t know exactly who she was talking to; and she tended to spray you with spittle when she spoke.” (page 161) Her hands, we are told, are huge and ‘her face had this strange expressionless, reptilian look’ (page 161). The description suggests an animal-like woman, devoid of any of the softer emotions associated with women in general and with those who work with babies in particular. Gurmeet’s own father is described as ‘hefty and bristly, six feet three inches tall and built like a heavyweight boxer, with a flattened pakora nose and a snarling temper’ (page 4) while his mother generally has a ‘sourpuss bitter expression on her face’ (page 4). These descriptions are rather startling in their violence of physiognomies and sheer excesses of physical presence.

TBFN19 works at creating a sensational effect by describing the girls as innocent and helpless. ‘What could they, eight schoolgirls, do against twenty-five rioters?’ (page 43) they wonder, as they watch the mob gathered at the gate. The sensational manner of showing the apparent weakness of the girls, when contrasted with the untold strength of the mob becomes the backdrop against which the readers perceive how the girls use their ingenuity to fight the bloodthirsty men. By describing the girls as innocent and helpless, Lal sets the stage so that readers can be surprised at and impressed by the courage of the girls. Hence we have Puja, the girl to whom all the others look up in moments of a crisis, battling her own monsters as she wonders, ‘Papa? Would he care? Or would he just shrug in that hateful indifferent way of his and stalk out of the room as he had done when I told him I had won the archery tournament and he pretended he hadn’t heard?” (page 113) This apparent uncertainty in Puja’s mind only serves to throw into relief her cool headed determination to fight the rioters. 

Gurmeet is horrified when he realizes that his parents are accomplices in the whole plot to kill all girls born in the family. He is shocked at the family continuing to drink the water of the very well into which they have thrown at least seven babies. This sensational piece of news opens Gurmeet’s eyes to many truths about his family and the unfair nature of the world he inhabits. His first reaction to this piece of sensational news in his apparently normal family is one of shame. He also experiences guilt for this distorted way in which his parents have fulfilled their role as protectors to his sisters. Later he is filled with anger and suggests to his sisters that they poison the well water, so that his parents will fall ill. This, he reasons, will provide his sisters an opportunity to right the wrongs. 

Both the novels use a sensationalized version of the events to establish the shocking and unconventional nature of the subject matter of their narrative. The anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s death have never been the subject matter of young adult fiction. The same is true of the topic of FW; female infanticide is an acknowledged fact of Indian society and yet has never been tackled in a book for teens by Indian authors. The very nature of the subject matter addressed in these books, I believe, demands a sensational treatment. 

Sentimental narratives rely on the use of sentiments, often to the point of melodrama, to portray the characters as caring people. These abound in both the novels and at various points we find the characters succumbing to their emotions. In TBF No. 19, for example, when the girls are combing the house, looking for the owners, as a matter of course, they look in the water tank. Sheetal examines the water tank, and when she draws back, she is ‘surprised by the tears on her cheeks’ and goes ‘to the far side of the terrace to wipe her eyes (she was hugely embarrassed)’. (page 35) This suggests that the girls have not, despite the horrors they have faced, become immune to the pain and sufferings of others. In FW, Gurmeet is shocked that his sisters can so easily forgive the very people who had caused their deaths. What is more, the girls have purified the water of the well where they were drowned and turned it into an elixir that gives all members of the Diwanchand family a healthy life. But when Gurmeet suggests that his sisters consider poisoning the water to teach their parents a lesson, Mohini, his older sister, ‘looked pained.’ (page 24) ‘Don’t even think about it. They’re our parents after all, in spite of everything.’ (page 24) Mohini’s sentimental attitude is evident in the way she goes about changing the way their parents think. Rather than punish them for killing three of their daughters, she concentrates on proving to them how much fun having girls can be. 

When Gurmeet’s mother, pregnant again, comes to stay at the family house, the girls begin to work their magic on her. Gurmeet notices that, ‘Mama suddenly seemed to become happier than I’d ever seen her before. She had this smiling, Cheshire cat expression on her face…’ (page 103). This transformation from the woman with the bitter expression is startling. No less startling are Mama’s tears when she sees a picture of her dead daughters on Gurmeet’s computer. Gurmeet mentions at various points how his mother becomes a happier person and realizes that her sorrow over the deaths of her daughters had made Mama unhappy. But the presence of her daughters (even if she can’t see them) transforms her into a happier, more contented person. Mama’s unhappiness over her daughter’s deaths and her longing to have them with her are brought out in various ways. One afternoon Gurmeet sees his mother surrounded by his sisters, as they try on her clothes and jewelry. On another occasion he realizes that his mother is being given a head massage by his sisters. These seemingly innocuous events are nevertheless loaded with sentimental significance for Mama and Gurmeet notices that the presence of his sisters has affected his parents in a very positive way. ‘Certainly the presence of the girls in the house seemed to put both Mama and Papa into a good mood. Mama’s bitter, sour look was gone and Papa was no longer the piranha, ready to bite your head off for no reason; he was jovial and laughed a lot.’ (page 160) 

It is his sentiments towards his sisters and the fate they have suffered that makes Gurmeet determined to save his newborn twin sisters. The sentimental narrative that Mama and Papa have unknowingly been consuming has an even stronger effect on them. Papa, when reminded of how the Diwanchand tradition cannot be broken and why it is necessary for the babies to die, explodes and tells his brother, ‘It’s over. I’m not doing anything like that ever again…My poor girls.’(page 195). And just so none of them – Mama, Papa and Gurmeet – ever forget the awful things that have happened to the girls, a beautifully framed photograph of Mohini, Nanni and Baby turns up in their bedroom, and it cannot be removed. Mohini’s final sentimental gesture acts as a constant reminder of all that has happened in the past. 

The girls in TBFN19 too experience many moments when emotions run high. Despite their apparent courage, they are young girls, who are all homesick and who wonder, ‘Had their parents come down to Delhi to search for them, and even now were scouring the streets, calling their names?’ (page 113) When Payal is hurt in a fall in the middle of their battle with the rioters, the girls forget their primary objective in their concern for their friend and, ‘clustered white-faced around Payal.’ (159) ‘Is she dead?” Ritika asked, with a sob,’ (page 159) putting into words the fears haunting all the others. The injury of one of their own group, on top of all the horrors they have witnessed, is simply too much for the girls to bear. 

Puja speculates on the character of people who harm innocents. ‘The monster. Did he go around placing burning tyres around the necks of children and defenceless people? Did he have children of his own, like Simi and Jogi, to whom he returned every evening and told stories about the people and children he had set on fire and hit and stabbed and butchered that day, people that he garlanded with their own intestines?’ (page 131). Thinking of the appropriate punishment for these people, she thinks, ‘They should all boil in oil. Pour a tureen of bubbling boiling oil over them, or better, slowly ladle by ladle, and snap your fingers and dance as they screamed.. and their eyeballs bubbled!’ (page 62) The imagery of her thoughts is in direct contrast with her own uncertainty about whether she would be able to fire an arrow at another human being. And yet, this contrast is what provides the perfect understanding of Puja’s state of mind - caught between her uncertainties and her sentimental reaction to the events she has witnessed. 

Towards the end of the novel, as little Simi is held hostage by one of the rioters, and Puja draws her bow to fire at him, she realizes, ‘She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t.’ (page 174) She lowers the bow, convinced that she can’t shoot the man who is threatening to kill Simi. And then, she recalls the manner in which this very man had threatened her friend. ‘She remembered Sheetal, glaring at the tip of the spear inches from her stomach, while this hooligan… this psychopath, jerked it back and forth mockingly at her, ready to plunge it in.’ (page 175-6) This sentimental memory serves to help Puja make up her mind. ‘To save her own world, she would have to enter his…” (page 176) And in a sudden and sensational manner, she shoots dead the rioter. 

Sentimental narratives, I believe, combat but also heighten the shock of the sensational events in the novels. Thus Sheetal’s tears at finding the water tank empty highlights the fact that despite the horrors she has faced, she can still experience the pain of others. The celebration of Jaya’s birthday, while they are held hostage in No. 19 is another example of the manner in which sentiments are used to help the girls come to terms with the sensational manner in which the world around them has gone mad. Despite being imprisoned in the house, with the constant threat from the rioters, the girls don’t forget or ignore an important occasion like a birthday. They make an effort to bake a cake and even have an impromptu birthday party in the middle of the night, complete with balloons, funny hats and noisemakers. The sentiments of the girls, specifically Puja, regarding the horrible death of Kartar Singh are referred to at various points in the novel. The ghastly incident serves as a constant refrain for the girls, a refrain that evokes a sentimental reaction in them, even as it urges them to be steadfast and fight back. 

Presenting a sentimental account of the sensational events is the only way in which a survivor can actually remember them. The horror of what has happened, what has been witnessed, can only be articulated through a sensational vocabulary. Both Gurmeet and Puja recall the horrors in a sensational manner. Since Gurmeet has not witnessed the killing of the babies, he has to rely on his imagination. Puja, having witnessed the horrific events, sees them again in her mind’s eye, dwelling on the gory details. 

A sentimental rendering of the events is another way by which survivors help to make sense of the events. Thus Puja endows the rioter, their enemy, with ugly sentiments. This helps her perceive him and treat him as the threat he is. In the case of Gurmeet’s family, different sentimental narratives are used to make them aware of the horror of what they have done. Mama and Papa are surrounded by love and thus made to understand the joy having daughters can bring. This realization helps open their eyes, and at the end we find that they no longer care about the established tradition of their family. They set their faces staunchly against the killing of any girls and determine to love and cherish their own daughters. Gurmeet’s aunt gives birth to a girl a year later and even though Aunt Surinder, the person behind all the deaths, does not have a daughter, she manages the home for abandoned baby girls. For Gurmeet, essentially a survivor and a witness to the horrors that have been perpetrated in his family, these sentimental reactions are essential in order to come to terms with his own life. How else can he ever accept and continue to love his parents?

Survivors therefore, use different means to come to grips with the events that have shaken their lives. The sentimental and sensational narratives are the means that help them understand and react to these events, and help them go on with their lives. 

In the sentimentalization of the sensational events, Lal suggests, we can also discern actual practices that reform people. The creation of a home for girls is surely a sentimental response to the highly sensational and shocking female infanticide practiced by the same family. Yet, even minimally, this sentimental response is a reformation of the social and domestic realms.




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