The Unspoken Curse by V.K. Madhavankutty (translated from the Malayalam by Prema Jayakumar); Tara Press, New Delhi, 2005; pages 256, $8.95, 6.90.
THE Unspoken Curse, V.K. Madavankutty's second novel that follows his much-admired Village Before Time, revisits the village of his memories to retrieve the image of an ordinary rustic woman destined to the silent agony of a heartless household. The novel narrates in a simple, direct and unadorned style the sad tale of Kalyanikutty, fated to pass through life unobtrusively, bearing her curse like a cross she had volunteered to carry from birth to death. The story opens with the news of her death, carried casually by a letter the narrator - obviously working in a distant city in North India that could well be Delhi - gets from a relative in the village. The letter leads his thoughts to his rural home with its legends and gossips.
Each character, including Kumarettan, the writer of the letter, has a story behind him - of unrequited love, of a secret liaison, of alien soil that turned them rich. Kumarettan, who remained a bachelor as he refused to marry Vishalakshy, the cross-eyed and impudent daughter of his uncle, Nanu Nair, who had a secret relationship with a woman in Mankara where he disappeared from time to time; Raman Nair, the gossip-mongering charge d'affaires of the village who was proud of his subcaste; Abraham, who returned from Singapore to build a palatial house on the banks of the river Nila; Bhageerathy, who complained about Raman Nair's improper comment on her buttocks to her uncle... It is from this sea of legends that Kalyanikutty emerges with the curse of being the second daughter in the household, the middle one between Saudamini and Vanaja, both of whom received greater affection as the eldest and youngest.
It was Krishna Panikkar, the village astrologer, who provided an excuse for her ill-treatment by pointing to the inauspicious moment of Kalyanikutty's birth. As she grew up, she herself began to believe in fate's irrevocable decree. Her whole existence was an indignity: she was treated like the unpaid servant of the house and ordered about without qualms; she was given the worst possible clothes to wear, was kept out of auspicious occasions and was the inevitable scapegoat whenever something went awry in the house. She submitted to her fate without complaint, holding no jealousy towards her fortunate sisters; she kept her feelings under check and retreated into reticence. The good things she did were never acknowledged. She only shared her grief with an aunt who pitied her fate. Her younger sister was married off before her as those who came to see her found her too plain.
Finally, when they found her a husband, it was one who was already a father and did not know how to express love, though he was not cruel to her. She had to put up with his drinking, apparently done to get over the depression the absence of his daughter Mini caused. His fashionable and licentious first wife, Mousumi, had eloped with his boss, taking his daughter with her. The wedding, being his second, was a low-key affair and did not give Kalyanikutty the liberation she had longed for as she had mostly to live in her own house when her husband, K.N. Menon, left for Dubai for his job.
One day he lost his job and grew impotent to boot, pushing his wife further into her cheerless solitude. Mini's brief return to meet her father brightened up the family for a few days, but she had to leave and was warned by her mother not to embarrass her step-father by such visits. Menon died of an unattended stomach ulcer, leaving Kalyanikutty in her unrelieved loneliness, as their son too had run away. Her health deteriorated and one day she breathed her last. Her death was as silent a non-event as her birth and her humdrum life.
The sad, insipid and silent life of Kalyanikutty epitomises the destiny of thousands of women sentenced to quiet suffering in the matrilineal Nair families before the arrival of the unitary family. They did not even have the dignity of tragic heroines such as C.V. Raman Pillai's Subhadra in Marthanda Varma or the emancipatory aspirations that inspire O. Chandu Menon's Indulekha in the eponymous novel: they were anonymous, colourless, almost invisible. Madhavankutty's novel is a meaningful attempt to make such unsung lives visible and arouse the readers' compassion for their sordid non-existence.
The omniscient narrator, long absent from the art of the novel, is back here in full prowess as he, supposedly a kin of the protagonist, chooses to tell the human story simply without even an attempt at being either poetic or philosophical: the idiom of the novel is as plain as the life it narrates. Prema Jayakumar, who has already done some excellent translations of Malayalam fiction, has been able to retain the directness of narration in this highly readable English version. The book is well produced too, but for some regrettable proof-reading errors that are too glaring to go unnoticed. Here is a plain tale to turn to for the reader weary of the Coetzees, Rushdies and Umberto Ecos.