Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men. These words of Joseph Conrad were continuously spinning in my mind when I was reading Nadi Palshikar’s novel ‘Sutak’. The novel is about the lives of two sisters and their relationship with each other. The male characters have found only little more than passing references. But, I found this entire novel a strong commentary on men, in fact, a kind of charge-sheet against the suffocating patriarchal set-up of our surroundings. Let me tell you on the outset that it is not a text filled with those familiar feminist rage. Nor the novel is a war cry against male-dominated society that is inhabited by the two sisters- the protagonists- Lalita and Vinodini.
The plot of novel revolves around the life of Lalita- from childhood to motherhood with sisterhood in between- in fact, most of time. The title- Sutak- means the twelve day long mourning of death. Nadi Palshikar is a doctor by profession and has studied screenplay writing at famed FTII, Pune. She has also done a course in Women’s Studies at Pune University. She has a keen interest in cinema. She is a wife and a mother. She has served women patients from the lower section of society and studies the health issues of Muslim women. Her vast and diverse experience has certainly enriched the content and its delivery in this novel, which is her first.
The story unfolds with the viewpoint of Lalita, and technically, she should be called the protagonist. But, Vinodini is always there and around, and it is she who provides a context here, a reference there, an undercurrent beneath, and so on. At times, she appears as the alter-ego of Lalita, makes her complete, and at times, she becomes the outgrowth and expansion of Lalita providing her much-needed breathing space. That’s why, to me, she is equally a protagonist along with Lalita.
Both sister are different in temperament as well as have a different lives. But, they inhabit the same social milieu. Just shades and hues appear different. But are they really different? Or, they compliment each other? Both are the heroine of the story. But, they don’t do extraordinary things. They are also not in extraordinary situations. Still, they are heroines because they try to shape their lives themselves. They do so with sublime and simple attitude. The process is so ‘moving on’ type, however no one is able to move on till the last pages, and when they begin to move on in the real sense of the term, they move together with their rediscovered and repaired individuality. The very ordinariness of their being and act gives this story of a mundane situation a monumental dimension. The characters and their interactions stay with you for long after you have turned the last page over. They haunt because they are so ordinary, and because they are so ordinary, they become our story.
The tale is spread over long 24 years, but the novelist has chosen present tense all through, and story is intertwined in the past and the present. This style provides a simultaneous telling of many stories happened in different times together. The reader is immersed between the layers of the internal as well as as the external upheavals of various characters. There are many episodes that remains with you long after you keep the book back on the shelf. Lalita is so scared of cats that mere mention can disturb her, but when Vinodini’s cat is in pain while trying to give birth to her babies, Lalita calmly goes to her and without being scared at all, plays a perfect midwife. Meanwhile, Vinodini is scared to see her cat in rage and in pain. Once Lalita tells her daughter that she is happy here and happy with so and so. Her daughter asks, ‘and with Papa?’ Lalita does not say anything, just hugs the kid.
It is a fantastic debut, and one can only wish and demand that Dr Palshikar comes out with more stories. A must read for women for this might help them in understanding their situations better. And for men, to make them more sensitive, to better their being.