How does an Indian researcher providentially find her way to a university town in the United States? What does she learn from its free bus services and thrift stores? In P. Sivakami’s Language of the Mirror, Bhuvana, an academic in her fifties who believes that “the meaning of life is to live every second consciously”, visits the US on a research fellowship. What distinguishes this novel about the everyday experiences of a visiting scholar in a foreign land are its philosophical underpinnings.
Sivakami remarkably synthesises her personal experiences with her research through the mode of fiction. Language of the Mirror abounds with a myriad indefatigable women who bring vivid, diverse perspectives, beliefs and convictions to bear on its narrative. The third-person narrative, which also has elements of memoir and travelogue, moves back and forth across time and space, deftly weaving themes of gender, caste, race, friendship, motherhood, poverty, loneliness, suffering, personal loss, education, mindfulness, and leadership.
Sivakami deploys humour with a sharp irony and, at times, anger. Take, for instance, this observation about how, despite being emancipated by education, Bhuvana is not immune to discrimination: “How often people try to dominate others through caste! How could she expect basic respect from such a person? A beautiful, smart woman in her fifties, dressed in simple and elegant designer salwar suits, wearing exquisite pearls in her ears and speaking in a cultured, low tone had to fall back on caste to convince others of her real worth.”
Bhuvana’s admiration and awe of the public libraries and museums, the shopping sprees (tinged at first with guilt) which soon become an indulgence, the temporary redemptions offered by thrift stores, the cooking experiments, the weekend clean-ups … these experiences are universal to visiting Indian scholars in the US.
Library as haven
Is reading a luxury or a necessity? The library and museum are quite special to Indian women scholars who rarely find the time or space to read back home, what with the mounting pressures of academic work, domestic chores and family responsibilities. Eager not to miss out, Bhuvana would “greedily grab those books that bedecked the shelves fearing someone would make off with them. She would stack those books against her chest like a rare treasure on the long table”. The university library is a haven and books are panacea to the Bhuvanas of the world.
The novel also talks of Bhuvana’s experiments with mindfulness and reflection following the death of her son Guna in a road accident. The lines “Bhuvana admired the Buddha. Why was his serene expression difficult to replicate?” seem to suggest that transcendence is man’s sole privilege while the woman’s lot is that of immanence.
Scholar as emissary
Sivakami’s commitment to social change is rooted in her rich experience as an administrator, thinker and activist. She writes: “Poverty is contextual, cultural…to be poor and to be a Dalit is one and the same. And in the hierarchical order of caste, Dalit women are placed at the lowest rung and the most exploited.” In the end, Bhuvana emerges as an emissary between the two countries, interrogating the social evils of caste and race on the one hand and celebrating the richness of cultural diversity on the other.
Bhuvana’s journey to the US is based on Sivakami’s own experience as a Fulbright scholar. For the aspiring researcher, she provides inspiration and information, right from the selection process, the interview, accommodation, travel, applying for a Social Security Number and details of the local Indian grocery store down to the final submission of tax documents. As a novel of ideas, Sivakami sums up through her characters: “Wisdom is self-realisation through different mediums. It is a continuous process. But what’s more important is to bring the entire humanity on to this path as humans are interconnected.” These lines are testament to the ordeals and aspirations of an ambitious thinker and leader who tries to trace a trajectory between the Indian belief in diversity and the American concept of multiculturalism.
P. Mary Vidya Porselvi teaches at the Department of English at Loyola College, Chennai.