In an age when the quest for gender parity is so overwhelming, it is quite natural that the topic would reflect in art and literary works especially when the central character is a woman. But 'Dhobi Girl', a novel written by Radha Venuprasad and published by Notion Press, that tells the story of a woman who rises from a dilapidated labour colony to the zenith of professional success, is devoid of any such pre-occupied notions.
The book predominantly dwells on the world of Anuja, right from her formative years when she lived with her mother, who washed clothes for a living, and an ill-tempered stepfather in the labour colony close to the industrial township in Chennai. Intelligent and ambitious, Anuja is happily ensconced in the womb of the bustling colony. And to keep her company in her strides towards promising academic heights, there is Ratna aka Ratnakumar, who is the son of a fisherwoman in the neighbourhood. Ratna is equally brilliant and an achiever.
The narrative flows like a stream. In the quaint drab environs, characters emerge out of nowhere like figments of a magical world and leave a lasting impression. The story is being told three parts – as that of Anuja, Devi (in first person) and Ratna (in third person).
The romantic drabness early on might pull you down to the dust and force you to be one with the world of Anuja thereafter. Thus Ratna, Suma, Usha Arathi Sathi all become part of your life making their world yours for a while. The story pans across the suburban swathes of Chennai, the heart of the city, to the Tamil hinterland of Bhoothapandi, Sivakasi to Haridwar and then to Estham, London, Paris, Swiss Alps, Edinburugh and so on.
The cheeky accounts of adultery and fidelity, amorous liaisons and restraint, penury and affluence shed light on the contrasting realities of the wider spectrum of life in the city and its suburbs. Meanwhile, Lisy, Narayanan, Chandra, Padmaja Madam are all manifestations of the bitter-sweet tryst of humans with the realities of post modern, industrialised towns.
While some insignificant characters are well-etched, some of the prominent characters are nameless. Thus, mother of Anuja's friend Ratnakumar is always Ratna's mother and even Anuja mother is 'Amma'.
The narrative flits back and forth in time, making the book an absorbingly vivacious read.
It's an aesthetic respite that Venuprasad doesn't subscribe or sidle to any particular school of thought or mores. She remains an unprejudiced spectator through out. It's a free-flowing, no-holds-barred depiction of events in the life of Anuja that she endures or, at times, revels in. Above all, it unravels some effervescent feminine instincts and some of the most beautiful pangs of womanhood.
It is interesting to see Venuprasad makes her characters get involved in conflicts of thoughts and principles. At one point when a grown up Ratna, who has shared a past of poverty with Anuja, tells her on a practical note, "One day, may be you will feel bad that you missed out on life or a good husband by your moralistic constraints...." and Anuja later says, "Years later when I missed having a husband, I recalled this conversation in detail. My eyes turned moist."
The cheeky wits, the unpredictable characters and the vagaries of life make it grossly engaging. Thus Jay, Professor, Nathaniel, Devi, Karthik, Anne all evolve into mysterious bundles that would be unravelled eventually.
As the plot gathers steam, the distinct layers of love, felony, mercy, debauchery, arrogance and whatever human characteristics that can be identified, come into an exciting kaleidoscopic interplay. The tale spins ahead swifty as we keep flipping the pages until we discover it's over.
What make the novel so household are its characters, which are quotidian, close to us and quite natural. While in Anuja, though we see all virtues she is not bereft of human vices, which are inexorably natural. Ratna is abound with benevolence but at the same time fastidious and feisty. We have Ratna's mother as a virago who is cruelty personified and Nathaniel as a silent poison who has the power to destroy anything that comes in his way.
'Dhobi Girl' depicts an attractive and intricate web of relationships where you would bump into a surprise every few seconds. The saga progresses as a search for the truth in life, more importantly, the ultimate happiness. Whether the characters would find it or not is what the story is all about.