Sting operation

An ambitious ensemble novel about women whose lives criss-cross briefly at a riverside resort.

Published : Feb 13, 2019 12:30 IST

Aspectre haunts Anita Nair’s ambitious new novel. Trapped in a piece of finger bone, the ghost of writer Sreelakshmi, “Kerala’s Virginia Woolf”, has been waiting in a vault for over 50 years when a chance discovery thrusts her into the thick of the 21st century. At a riverside resort in present-day Kerala, the lives of nine women criss-cross briefly, tangentially. One after another, their deepest secrets reveal themselves to Sreelakshmi, the seeker of stories.

Sreelakshmi claims an unusual vantage: “Ghosts and writers are more alike than you think. We can be what you want us to be. We can hear your thoughts even if you don’t tell us. We can read the silences and shape your stories as if they happened to us. And I was both: a ghost and a writer.” And thus it is that this ghost-writer comes to preside over a procession of life stories, including, in the end, her own.

Eating Wasps is a novel of interesting conceits. The title is a throwback to an incident from Sreelakshmi’s childhood when she takes a wasp for a bee and chomps hard on it, hoping for a mouthful of honey. She becomes, irrevocably, “the girl who ate a wasp”. An act of innocent curiosity turns into a stinging portent of things to come. To eat wasps, then, is to fly headlong in the face of a humdrum life. It is also to discover, as Sreelakshmi and each woman in the novel does in her turn, that any expectation of sweetness will be rewarded with an acrid dose of reality.

And then there is the conceit of the finger bone. Compared to “a teacher’s chalk that could write, but not on its own” and “a die about to be cast in some game of chance”, it plays the omniscient narrator to a fault.

Passed baton-like from chapter to chapter, the bone divines every dark secret, every scar of violation ever endured by the woman holding it. In many ways, it performs a sting operation, making its stealthy way through the forbidden territory of forgotten memories. However, it is less voyeur than empath, feeding as it does on the fear and the rage of women whose lives have not gone the way they would have wanted them to go. Even as it nudges each woman imperceptibly towards her own moment of reckoning, it also brings about a semblance of closure for Sreelakshmi, who after immersing herself in others’ stories finally musters the courage to tell her own.

Eating Wasps is an elaborate ensemble of hope and heartache, of headstrong women (“goddesses with tummy fat, bat wings and cellulite”) who are chastened and thwarted at every step but who soldier on with their choices and disappointments all the same.

The character of Sreelakshmi has obviously been modelled on the legendary Malayalam writer Rajelakshmy, the first woman novelist to win the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. Like Rajelakshmy, Sreelakshmi crosses boundaries to study science at Benares Hindu University in the 1960s and become that triple anomaly of a successful writer, scientist and single woman; like Rajelakshmy, Sreelakshmi takes her own life at the age of 35. But when Sreelakshmi returns to look back on her life, it is as though a sisterhood has linked hands across time and space. This time, she understands that if only the women survive their broken present, their lives need never be the same again.


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