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Jan 5, 2012

Meeting Lives: Tulsi Badrinath


Tulsi Badrinath's Meeting Lives was on the longlist of the Man Asian Literary prize. It is easy to read and the translated verses from the Upanishads and biographical texts of revered Vedantins that liberally intersperse the narrative are a pleasant surprise. This allows the author to travel in time and history and connect the vignettes to the present time and the physicality of the storyscape.

Aditi inhabits and traverses many worlds in her search for meaning of her role and identity. She is a well-educated, well-informed, Vedanta-inspired, independent woman and introspects periodically on her various roles as daughter, friend, wife and mother and an empathiser of an abandoned woman. The storyline is fairly straightforward. There is hardly anything unusual about a plot that engages with a young woman's concerns about her married life and motherhood which unfold a sequence of disappointments and frustrations.

Aditi marries a person of her choice and has a baby who becomes her central focus as she tires to raise him single-handedly. The narrative throws up unusual challenges to the reader as Aditi sometimes goes into overdrive in her internal dialogues with mythological and historical characters to seek and find understanding, parallels, and solace. At times the joy of reading gets overwhelmed by cross references and requires a dogged approach to get through to the end.

Badrinath wanted her novel to reflect her life as an Indian and wanted it to be about India. Like her protagonist, Badrinath is a young mother, spiritually and philosophically informed, a trained Bharatnatyam dancer who loves to write fiction. So far, this bears up with her ideas of what she wanted to do with her story.

The storyline and its conceptualisation, however, suffer from weak ideation. Aditi struggles through her period of motherhood in trying to raise a baby who is a handful. She is disillusioned in her relationship and finds it hard to cope with being a single mother living in her parental home. The Juxtaposition of Thayee - an old, abandoned mother of four who lives on the street - with that of Aditi adds an interesting contrast. The only thing that ties them is their individual isolation and the fact that both live their lives in total surrender to what comes their way.

The part of the insensitive husband is meant to lend support to why Aditi feels abandoned and distraught when overworked and tired with the baby. This somehow does not wash.

Mothers all over the world are the primary nurturers and caregivers, even in bonded relationships. Her frustrations with not having her husband around for emotional and physical support cannot justify a full novel. It is her choice that Aditi rejects outside help and becomes a fulltime mother. The conflicts and insecurities are her own as she remains a dutiful daughter and unchallenging in her husband's life decisions. This novel needs a sequel to see how the situation gets resolved.

Motherhood and a spouse indifferent to child-rearing is hardly what exciting fiction is made of. What saves and enlivens this narrative are the beautiful verses from spiritual treatises cleverly interwoven with the running story. But if Badrinath is looking for a global audience then she will unfortunately fall into the trap of using spirituality to attract a foreign readership. Fortunately, the book had a detailed glossary and references pages.

The novel must be read not so much for its complex ideas but mostly to feel its inner fabric of soft and calm vibrations of positive resonance.

Article from the Newspaper THE HINDU
Meeting Lives, her first novel, was on the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist 2007. Her second novel, now titled Man of A Thousand Chances, was also on the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, 2008.

Tulsi Badrinath's “Man of a Thousand Chances” (Hachette India), recently launched, is very different from her first novel, “Meeting Lives” (Niyogi). If that one used an unconventional format with a dreamy, arty quality that actually made some readers ask “where's the story?”, this one very much has a plot — and a plotter.

Harihar, an employee in a Chennai museum and an earnest, doting father of Meeta whom he has to marry off in an opulent style befitting his community's expectations, plots to “borrow” and pawn a priceless coin minted by Emperor Jahangir. His job gives him access to the antiquities stored in his office, and an object not displayed to the public will not be missed for a long time. By that time, Harihar will have redeemed the coin, having paid back the pawnbroker using money from an investment due to mature just a few days after the wedding.

Taking advantage of a hubbub caused by an errant temple elephant that escapes from its mahout and enters the museum compound, Harihar sets his plan in action. It seems, like all meticulous schemes, the perfect crime.

But first-time thieves forget to calculate the stress of being on the wrong side of the law. Or leave a margin for unforeseen developments, or the possibility that others can be dishonest too. So the novel from the first has a suspenseful tone. We know ‘whodunit', but we don't know if he will be caught.

“Yes,” agrees Tulsi, adding. “The resolution in the end is both at the level of the narrative as also the philosophical.”

Here we come to the crux of her interests. Tulsi says as the daughter of a philosopher (Sahitya Akademi Award recipient late Chaturvedi Badrinath), she wants her novels to have something the reader can take away beyond the storyline. So there is, behind this seemingly simple story of a middle-class man in a socio-economically induced fix, a more complex question: We find ourselves in a discussion of karma, of why some actions have logical results and others seemingly don't.

“I wrote this book to answer the question, if only to myself, what is it that makes things happen? Fate or providence, self-will or karma,” says the author. “And the plot was woven around this theme. It is a question that begins to preoccupy Harihar when the unity of his world is breached by the loss of Ratan, his son.”

Harihar, suffering guilt pangs, wonders if he is just a pawn in someone else's chess game. Are we finally responsible for our actions? Tulsi suggests that perhaps the punishment one expects for knowingly committing a wrong has already been dealt out to Harihar, “since we will never know which action is being matched in which life with its reaction/punishment.”

She remarks, “Harihar arrives at the conclusion, which matches my own view, that regardless of what makes life happen, rather than trying to control the capricious outer world, he could try to concentrate on his inner nature... for the only thing that he can control are his responses to a puzzling, often brutally unfair, world.”

It is a long way to come for a man born into an orthodox business family, whose early life lessons have been about how to keep money safe from greedy relatives. “These are people who don't read very much and don't examine their lives to any great degree,” notes Tulsi, “which is why Harihar is surprised by his own growth once he joins the museum.” Tulsi emphasises that Harihar's wife Sarla is a pivotal character. “She truly is fundamental to this story as well, sliding out from the confines of her house into the world of men, a scary world for her…She's the unsung hero.”
Historical details

The setting also ensures the story is peppered on the one hand with cameos from a North Indian style wedding, and on the other, details about Indian history and numismatics. Did this require a lot of research? “Not a lot of research but yes, very specific research relating to coins. I was looking for stories of hoards, and found the lovely one relating to the Bayana hoard, and also interesting details such as Jehangir shown holding the wine-cup in a particular coin, or peacocks on Roman coins.” Then there is the iconography. “I wanted to write about Indian art, to share my love for it and actually wanted to fill this imaginary museum with the best examples of Indian sculpture and bronzes, etc. but soon realised that would not work in a novel. So I chose just one bronze, my favourite, the absolutely unique Vrishabha-vahana Shiva of the Thanjavur museum and described him,” says the author, a Bharatanatyam dancer trained under the Dhananjayans, adding, “The Hindu had carried an article about 11 years ago with all the details I needed.

I had actually cut out and saved that article!” Tulsi says her next work will likely be a non-fiction book, though she has started on another novel too. Meanwhile, she is shortly off to Ahmedabad to read a paper and perform at a colloquium of women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi. A cool convergence of vocations: meeting lives!


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