There is something eerily gripping about ‘The Last Pretence’ – the first work of fiction by the noted writer Sarayu Srivatsa. One knows from the very beginning that the book has this uneasy-haunting quality, somewhat like the ghostly character featured in the book - Elizabeth Gibbs - whose presence is felt from beginning till the end, yet one cannot let go of the novel.
There has been no doubt about the writing ability of Sarayu Srivatsa with regard to her non-fictional accounts but ‘The Last Pretence’ (HarperCollins) comes as a revelation due to her innate power of story-telling. She portrays Machilipatnam, a small town on the Coromandel Coast realistically inspite of having never visited the place. The book revolves around the lead character Mallika and her unusual relationships with her father, husband and her son. Other characters are stark, vivid and well-rounded with distinct personas and the language sparkles lucidly.
“The rains, at all times, come tentatively to Machilipatnam. By the middle of June the sky grows wishy-washy. Clouds dangle from it, dark, the colour squeezed out of them. Then at night the rains come, sputtering as if from a tap that has remained unopened for a long time.”
Mallika evokes myriad feelings within the reader – as a child she gains our sympathy, as an adult one feels concern for her, as a wife she is baffling but as a mother she disturbs. The maid Munniamma appears as the reliable one of the lot but on closer reading one finds that she is instrumental in playing havoc with the psyches of the lead characters.
Initially, Munniamma encourages Mallika to dress up like her dead mother to please her father and gain his love – the first ‘pretence’ of doom. In the later part of the novel, she dresses up Siva as the dead girl child Tara to cure Mallika of her madness, which eventually leads to a complex relationship between the mother and the son – the last ‘pretence’ of doom. Then there is the widow Ammamai, a fighter for life but obsessed with Elizabeth’s ghost. Most of the characters in the book seem to be eccentric including Mallika’s husband and her father.
The theme of gender and sexuality is all pervasive. Right from Nayantara and Mallika’s lesbian encounter to the incestuous George-Elizabeth relationship; from eunuch Kamala’s painful past to Siva’s speculation about his sexuality - the author goes on to present the overpowering emotions and relationships boldly and thankfully, passes no judgement. In the following lines eunuch Kamala explains to Siva how she discovered her dubious sexuality.
“Kamala hesitated. ‘I was born a boy’, she explained, ‘like you, Siva. But I was not fully a boy. One day I was looking into the mirror and I saw the face of a young girl. I could hear her talking to me. I wanted so much to be her. I knew I would be happy if I could be her. So I became her.’ She raised her arms and shrugged. ‘That’s how I became a girl-boy.’
Parijat flowers, Kumkum bindis, songs and extensive puja ceremonies lend authenticity to the setting and the all-accepting sea has a somewhat symbolic presence throughout the novel. It’s a heavy book that takes nothing for granted. However, a bit of humour and light-heartedness would have certainly made a positive difference in the story.
To sum up, it’s a laudable work and seems to be written by a seasoned fiction writer. Sarayu Srivatsa is sure to make a mark in the field of fiction.