Bleak house

In Nirmala Pillai’s Secrets of Mango Rain, empathy and acceptance heal the wounds inflicted by toxic patriarchs.

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

An elderly woman weaves at her home in Palakkad, Kerala.

An elderly woman weaves at her home in Palakkad, Kerala. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

Buried family secrets lie at the heart of this novel. It begins with a young, orphaned girl, Valsa, who is sent from Mumbai to Kerala to live with her maternal grandmother when her parents die. From there the novel expands to cover two countries and cultures, looking closely at the customs and traditions of a matrilineal family in a grand homestead, where everyday life is informed with a deep misogyny.

Secrets of Mango Rain
By Nirmala Pillai
The Alcove Publishers
Pages: 350
Price: Rs.375

Nirmala Pillai keenly examines relationships and familial bonds to ask the questions: To what extent can individual happiness be sacrificed to maintain family honour? Is keeping your place in society more important than the well-being of your children? For the dogmatic Unni Menon, family honour comes first, and everything else takes second place. This lies at the root of the violence that rocks Raavilath Tharavad, robbing it of peace and harmony.

Valsa’s parents had fled the family home after their interreligious marriage: it earns them the everlasting wrath of Unni Menon, who swears that his daughter is dead to him from that time onwards. Then little Valsa turns up at his doorstep, traumatised with grief. She has to cope not only with the sorrow of loss but also with the toxic hatred of her grandfather, who refers to her as “the devil’s seed” who has come to destroy the ancient family line.

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Learning to resist

Luckily for Valsa, her grandmother, Ammu, embraces her, determined to protect the girl and make up for her reluctance to support her daughter all those years ago, when the young woman needed it the most. Valsa’s arrival signals the return of more family members, who also come trailing secrets, which demand to be acknowledged and resolved. This prompts the family matriarch, Ammu, to stand up to her domineering husband at last.

Cover of Secrets of Mango Rain.

Cover of Secrets of Mango Rain. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

When Valsa lands up in the family home, Ammu is initially hesitant about risking the ire of her husband to protect the child. But her love for Valsa wins over her fear, and she goes against Unni Menon’s wishes in giving sanctuary to the girl. Ammu has always been a spectator to her own life, meekly following the dictates of family elders and her husband. With Valsa, she learns that it is never too late to live life on her own terms. Once she discovers her agency, there is no turning back. From then on, Ammu decides to put the safety and happiness of her loved ones above all concerns of social disapproval.

The novel, told in three parts, is as much about Ammu discovering her voice and power as it is about Valsa growing up. The first half of the book introduces readers to the many characters of the story and sets the tone for the second half, where the injustices of the past are revealed. Pillai traces back age-old prejudices, such as the animosity towards inter-caste and interreligious marriages, to the desire of the powerful to retain power at all costs. The cultural status quo always serves the interest of dominant sections: Pillai brings this out forcefully through the stories of the affected characters, who have to rock the boat to regain their lives.

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Valsa’s transformation from a confused and hurt young girl into a confident and successful woman is convincingly sketched. However, while the main characters, Valsa and Ammu, are beautifully rounded, the same cannot be said of the supporting cast, whose stories remain cursory, serving merely to support the larger narrative.

The novel takes the reader through Kerala’s lush landscapes, which are darkened by their association with personal and social upheavals. But Secrets of Mango Rain is ultimately an affirmative story that emphasises the value of empathy and acceptance—not only of one’s self but also of the choices made by others—in binding families together.

Kochi-based Fehmida Zakeer is the translator of The Dreams of a Mappila Girl by B.M. Zuhara.

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