In The Poison of Love, K.R. Meera seems to symmetrise political, religious and domestic violence as equally inscriptive on the body of the woman.
In the most recent of K.R. Meera’s novels to be translated into English, The Poison of Love, the protagonist Tulsi goes to Vrindavan after leaving an eight-year marriage with a husband who keeps many lovers. In continuation of the partial re-telling of the Krishna tale (spoiler alert!), the reader eventually learns that she has killed her children à la Putana of the Mahabharata/Krishna story. The novel is a meditation on toxic love, a key motif in Meera’s oeuvre, which includes many works that are fast becoming part of an influential and widely commentated on canon – Meera’s works that have been translated into English now include Yellow is the Color of Longing, The Gospel of Yudas, Hangwoman and And Slowly Forgetting that Tree.
The book is dedicated to “all the Meeras of Vrindavan,” and perhaps the original Malayalam title of Meerasadhu (2008) is more apt in capturing the exactitude of this sort of torment, the draining of all sense of pride and self in an ancient religious setting. It is the humility of the servant-devotee (humility being etymologically linked to humiliation) that is also her bereavement and her ecstasy at singing the medieval saint Meera’s hymns of longing. As a labouring sweeper-woman in the temple, “cleaning the floors splattered with [their] urine and phlegm,” she keeps the key to the many doors of the temple (heavenly beings, like their human mirrors, need labour as much as liaisons). The faithful, ardent devotee-lover tries to clasp the gaze of the carefree, heedless lord and master, but such a prayerful fantasy of capture is foredoomed. Indeed, Tulsi has reached Vrindavan after being discharged from the Thiruvananthapuram medical college’s psychiatry ward and thus to go to Vrindavan to live there till she dies has the quality, for both Tulsi and the reader, of passing onto another scape of reality – Vrindavan being an eternal elsewhere, a utopia immune to the banality of everyday urban and domestic marital strife.
There is no time for sorrow – it is her family’s humiliation that lays first claim on her, the stoic father, the mother dying of illness, the younger sisters married off in haste. Tulsi had humiliated everyone by marrying Madhav after being engaged to another. But soon enough Madhav returns to older lovers, who in turn pity Tulsi. Madhav constantly apologises, and there is for a long time in Tulsi the memory and excitement of that first elopement, the inaugural moment of their togetherness, the recurrent, stylised image of his long eyelashes stroking her feet in contrition.
The theme of violent, fateful love is signalled from the first page: “Madhav gave me that poison. I did not die; instead I killed him. I, the widow, came to Mathura’s Vrindavan.” There is no detailed description of Vrindavan, but rather a montage signalled through images and smells (manure, the black-waved Yamuna, sour milk, crushed marigold, aluminium tiffin carriers, scuffling, infected monkeys, 5,000 temples, more temples than houses, the floating name of Krishna from the lips of 10,000 shaven, white-robed widows whose count include runaways and abandoned women “their faces resembled lamps that had died out, bereft of oil”, the pervasive, invisible lovemaking of the gods). Vrindavan is less a space (a nameable, historical/mythological town) than a series of sensory slices that summon up corresponding images in Tulsi’s psyche.
Meera’s compositions have a persistent theme of an accelerating toxicity of love that cannot be solved but only be brought to such a crisis that a third concept is forced to arrive or intervenes (death in The Gospel of Yudas and many stories in Yellow is the Color of Longing, or the state and media in Hangwoman, psychosis in And Slowly Forgetting that Tree). All these concepts (death, madness, the state, the media, etc.) frequently overlap and are mutually embedded in each other.
Her works, no matter what genre (short stories, novellas, novels) brim over with a rage and violence reminiscent of Mahasweta Devi, though perhaps unlike Devi, Meera seems to symmetrise political, religious and domestic violence as equally inscriptive on the body of the woman (“I needed wounds. To hurt myself more grievously, I needed more wounds”). There is Indira Goswami’s early autobiographical novel The Blue-Necked God, set in Vrindavan and involving a young widow, which also combines religion, grief and wounded sanity, but in a more lyricised mode. Another source of the archetypal lovers – younger, student woman seduced by a teacher who she then recognises as more degraded than she had imagined, may be seen as being in the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore’s prescient Four Chapters.
When the gods decay, there may be pathos, as also justice. If writing is raised and sustained at a high enough pitch (and Meera can sustain it for the most part for over 400 pages in Hangwoman), then that admixture of fury and grief that belongs not only to the theme but the prose itself, takes the protagonists out of themselves and into a sundered state of quasi-religious ‘ecstasy’ (in the original sense of standing outside oneself). A power not unlike that of the saint Meera’s poetry, or indeed that of the poems of a John Donne or a Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Nikhil Govind is the head of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University.