The Glass Bead Curtain
Vitasta Publishing. 2016
Pages 393 | Rs 299
A Delightful Debut
With The Glass Bead Curtain, Lakshmi Kannan, a prolific storyteller writing in Tamil as Kaaveri and translating herself into English under her own name takes the plunge into writing a full length novel in English, and her beautiful stream of words carry the reader along effortlessly into the closely guarded heart of a Tamil Brahmin household, peopled by numerous athais and pattis (aunts and grandmothers) in the days of the pre-Independence Madras Presidency. At the outset, it must be mentioned that Kannan’s dexterity in bringing alive the Tamil Brahmin household along with its colourful traditions, extended family names, and mouth-watering pickles and sambhars is laudable and adds to the endearing quality of the novel. The novel brings into sharp focus the twin issues of social reform and the status of women, with many of the concerns ringing equally true in the twenty-first century India. Also relevant is the focus on sports, quite prophetic in the times when the sole medals India won in the 2016 Rio Olympics were through the unflinching efforts of gritty sportswomen who overcame the many obstacles to reach the zenith! And the story of a female Badminton coach would surely remind the reader of ace shuttlers PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal who have done the country proud at several international platforms.
The title, The Glass Bead Curtain, makes the reader intrigued and curious enough to be led into the narrative, framed by Shailaja the writer facing a “block,” and grappling with petty domestic disagreements with a clearly unappreciative husband. After a particularly unpleasant tussle one day, leading to her eating the proverbial anger food i.e. Thayir Saadam (rice and curds), an emotionally and somatically hungry Shailaja locks herself in her study, the room of her own, her thought stream running steadily: including the death of her mother, the tragic death of her cousin and thereafter ‘bizarre customs in the name of religion,’ and her own literary occupations.
In the novel of thirty-four chapters followed by an epilogue, Shailaja proceeds to unravel the remarkable story of a child-bride Kalyani and her talented and resourceful Vishalakshi Athai who emerge as trailblazers and pillars of feminine strength in the face of obstacles ranging from public to intensely private. Despite Kalyani undergoing numerous fasts to keep her growing body from getting taller, the inevitable happens and by the time she is sent to her in-laws’ place post her ‘coming of age,’ her being taller than her husband Natarajan becomes the sore point with the women folk, who even speculate upon her imminent rejection by him. What follows is her sincere attempt to make up with her in-laws and the tender love and understanding that blossoms between her and her husband. The fact that she goes on to become a successful badminton coach (a completely unconventional career choice!) and an inspiration for many validates the numerous big and small battles she has had to fight in order to achieve empowerment. Similarly, in the case of Vishalakshi Athai, a child widow, who like a fountain of love and inspiration dispenses guidance to many generations of the family, her covert rebellion against her fate and subsequent empowerment is revealed in an interesting unravelling towards the end.
The reader is treated to some eminently memorable characters such as Miss Susan O` Leary, the Irish tutor appointed by her father to continue Kalyani’s education, described as someone with a “puckish sense of humour” that “makes studies very enjoyable” and also the one who lays the foundation for Kalyani’s broad vision for the world by introducing her to stalwarts like Shakespeare, Bacon, John Stuart Mill to name a few. Another important character is Angachi Paatti, Kalyani’s grand mother-in-law, who stands up for her at crucial junctures and brings about revolutions in the family – be it dumping the tradition of the wife eating from her husband’s used plate, something so nauseous and unbearable for Kalyani, to changing from the traditional nine-yard saree to a smaller one for the practicality of aiding fluid moments. Life comes full circle for Kalyani as she is called to take charge of her sister-in-law Karpagam’s education in English as she has been rejected by her husband for not knowing English or even Tamil for that matter, while Kalyani was made to feel embarrassed by her mother-in-law for her excellent English education till now. The episode lends itself to many hilarious situations but at the same time helps Kalyani develop greater insights about her in-laws. The epilogue records Shailaja’s immense relief and sense of complete ease as well as accomplishment as she finishes pouring out the extraordinary story which also gets rid of her writer’s block.
The short chapter titles like “Brahmahatya,” “The Body Epic,” “Asking for trouble,” and “A Little Madness” are interesting; and succeed in grabbing the reader’s attention. The novel’s title stems from the seventh chapter, where the Irish tutor comes across the beautiful piece of female workmanship in the form of the glittering and many-hued glass bead curtain hung on a door in the hallway, a collective effort from the women of the household, made using glass beads and twisted glass tubes in various eye-catching colours “cascading down in a beautiful pattern” and making “silver-toned tinkling sounds of gini, gini, gini,” reflecting as if the many shades and music of a woman’s life, spanning both her parental and wedded homes.
True to her sensitive writing style and acute eye for detail, Lakshmi Kannan brings to the fore and analyses crucial issues relating to women such as menstruation, proper nourishment for both children and women, rejection in marriage and widowhood, education of the girl child and career for women, as also the problems women face while asserting their selfhood and opinions both at home and their workplace.
Without being self-conscious or didactic about dealing with subjects seeped in conventional and orthodox Tamil Brahmin tradition, Kannan’s novel confidently guides the reader through the various traditions as well as superstitions of the family. A few typos and the sore lack of a contents page notwithstanding, the seamless intermingling of Tamil and English suitably aided by the glossary, makes the novel virtually unputdownable! In an era where sensationalism and so called ‘bold’ and ‘unconventional’ content has come to rule the novel writing in Indian English, instead of the usual scathing attack and ugly whiplashing, “The Glass Bead Curtain” comes across as a delightful instance of nuanced criticism and analysis of customs and traditions, while making a powerful case for women’s grit and undying spirit in infusing tradition with just the right dose of modernity.