Word of caution: Don’t be taken in by the slimness of KR Meera’s Qabar. At just over a hundred pages, this novella is part social commentary and part journey of self-discovery, with a soupçon of a complex little love story. It traverses difficult terrain with commendable ease. Belying its compact form, it identifies patterns of and starts conversations on religious polarisation, bigotry, patriarchal strictures. Translated from the Malayalam by Nisha Susan, the book asks of the reader a little suspension of disbelief, a willingness to make sense of our increasingly harsh realities with an immersion into the surreal.
The story is structured as a first-person account by Bhavana Sachidanandan, Additional District Judge and single mother, presiding over a case of the demolition of the petitioner’s ancestor’s qabar (grave). The petitioner, Kaakkasseri Khayaluddin Thangal, urbane and nattily dressed, with “Sean Connery’s body and Kamal Haasan’s eyes”, challenges Bhavana’s image of a skullcap wearing, bearded, “clichéd Mappila”.
Thangal is also an illusionist / mind-reader / djinn-worshipper / practitioner of magic, depending on who is telling his story. Bhavana’s neatly organised existence is pushed into chaos with Thangal’s illusions, illusions that seem to be tapping into both her fears and her desires. Bhavana sees rainbows and snakes. She has visions of her ancestor, Yogishwaran Ammavan, come back to haunt her. She is tormented by the unfinished, unresolved stories of two girls/goddesses who are part of the legend surrounding Ammavan. The surreal becomes commonplace in the fascinating landscape of Qabar.
Demolition and the law
The law, or its functioning in current day India, comes under a fair bit of criticism. The legal system favours the privileged, we are reminded. Bhavana, fuelled by her resolute faith in the rightness of the law, sees herself as an upholder of justice. The law demands evidence, she states. In a conversation that reads like a commentary on recent verdicts on land disputes, she asks Thangal:
“Doesn’t your objection stand in the way of public interest? And even if you argued that the qabar has historical importance, you don’t have any documents to prove it do you?” (…)
“I have no proof on paper.”
“Palm-leaf manuscripts then?”
“No. But just because there isn’t a document doesn’t mean there is no qabar.”
Bhavana’s courtroom makes no space for sentiment or for faith. And yet, as she discovers, the qabar exists, both as the ruins of a structure with minarets, and in people’s imagination. Documentary proof of it does not. The demolition of the qabar remains a wrong the law has been unable to redress. History, perhaps the writer wants us to see, is made up not just of facts and transactions recorded on paper (or palm-leaf manuscripts) but of lived experiences, of socio-cultural practises, and of collective memory.
The communal divide that defines much of our contemporary reality is brought home to the reader not just through the prejudices that Bhavana acknowledges or in the callousness with which the disputed qabar is demolished but also in Thangal’s narrativisation of the dehumanisation involved in having been the victim of a riot: “Once a huge mob strips you naked and looks at your genitals to find out which side you are? No one to whom that has happened- whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim- stays a person.”
The interchangeability of this religious identity and the consequent meaningless of the violence we inflict on ourselves is illustrated with a generous dollop of irony in a revelatory scene where the familial mythologies of Bhavana and Thangal coalesce and become indistinguishable.
The woman’s version
Qabar has a resolutely feminist sensibility. Bhavana’s mother, in an act of ultimate subversion and reclamation of agency, chooses service to injured animals over her husband and marital home. In a description reminiscent of 2021’s eerily accurate Malayalam-language domestic-drama, The Great Indian Kitchen, Bhavana narrates the excesses of patriarchal expectation that her mother fulfilled for almost the entirety of her married life, finally refusing to adjust and erase herself when her husband refuses to allow her to take care of a severely injured dog.
“Until she retired at fifty-six, I never saw my mother sit down once, not even on a Sunday,” she reminds her father. His response to which is: “Every woman in this country does all that. Does that mean you leave your husband in your old age and shame him like a dog in front of everyone?” Her labour is inconsequent in relation to his pride, as patriarchy has always insisted. The mother chooses to end “this business of asking for permission.”
In walking out of her marital home, she chooses herself over her husband, her child, and casts off the burden of societal expectations. Echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s idea of equality in marriage and Virginia Woolf’s insistence on a room of one’s own abound. Bhavana sees the same patterns in her marital life when she acknowledges that she consistently made herself smaller so that her husband could continue feeling superior.
In a striking exposition of Luce Irigaray’s écriture feminine, Bhavana’s mother reminds us that stories as told by women are different from those told by men. The family legend when narrated by the mother focalises patriarchal oppression that is completely glossed over in the father’s version. The erasure of all that is discomfiting is an age-old patriarchal ploy, after all: “This is what happens when you have too much pride in your traditions. You can’t talk about everything openly. Then you end up manufacturing a new legend.” Bhavana must then, find her own way into the legend and excavate several generations worth of silence, freeing the women in her family’s history of their burden of mythologisation.
No quick answers
Appositely, for a novel published during the ongoing horror of a relentless pandemic, when our world seems poised between extremes of cruelty and kindness, Qabar nudges the reader towards empathy and acceptance. Parent to a neurodivergent child, Bhavana explains the father’s abandonment of his child as a consequence of his lack of empathy, the “world’s biggest disorder”.
The novel refuses to provide instant solutions. There are no perfect endings, no perfect love stories. There are no perfect verdicts, either. There is only a quest for greater understanding, consequent on stepping out of self-assuredness, accepting historical wrongs and validating difference.
Qabar is an unabashedly political narrative and finds excellent synergy in the politics of its translation. There are no glossaries, no attempts at removing all traces of the source language in the pursuit of a mythic perfect equivalence, and yet, nothing in the narrative is inaccessible to the reader. There is a playfulness to the novel’s structure that counterbalances the seriousness of its content.
Also, when you do buy / borrow / steal the book, peel off that dust jacket illustrated with what I assume is an Edward rose, the same fragrant variant that is a leitmotif in the book, and look at the stunning cloth binding with its single, long-stemmed rose. Don’t judge a book by its cover, sure, but when the cover is as stunning as this one, please do take a minute to revel in its absolute perfection. Almost as much as you will revel in the sorcery of its words.
Qabar, KR Meera, translated from the Malayalam by Nisha Susan, Eka.