When Chittacobra was originally published in Hindi in 1979, there were rumours, then there were rows. The furore around a particular scene led to two policemen showing up at the author Mridula Garg’s door, and years of legal battles ensued. In hindsight, perhaps what is most baffling about the scale of the controversy is not that an arrest warrant was issued against a writer for a work of fiction – something about living in India right now insulates you to such shock – but the choice of the scene that provoked it.
When recounting the act of lovemaking with her husband, the protagonist Manu’s tone, said some readers, slips from descriptive to objectification, making it the cause of much hand-wringing and case-filing. The English translation of Chittacobra shows that reading it as a record of virtues and vices – and highlighting this segment as its most significant – misses the transgressions that are perhaps manifestations of bigger tragedies: a marriage bound by everything but love. This is a vision of a life with no possibility of collapse, so hollow is its core.
Is there a happily ever after?
Manu, married for almost ten years when she first meets Richard, has two daughters and a heart that has been offered little love. In the role of a housewife, she would be termed a success story: she hosts dinner parties that are the right mix of delicacies and drama; when she sits in front of a dressing table, she knows to highlight exactly those features of her face that will raise murmurs that evening; her husband’s habits paint the maps of her days to make an image of a harmonious household.
Richard is a bohemian ideal, spending most months of the year travelling from country to country with the church. He has a family back in England, and, like most families, it is a curious tether – he finds love in his vagabond life, but cannot leave his wife and children for it. They meet in Jamshedpur while rehearsing for a play, and Manu feels an instant, almost electric attraction. In the weeks of preparation, their conversations go from playful to intimate, and when the play is over, something new has begun between them.
The impediments to a happily ever after are many: families to answer to, a society’s wrath to face. The animating tension of their relationship, however, is complemented by a question that sometimes creeps in from the sidelines: what if this love is propelled only by the peculiarity of their circumstances? Take away the ocean between them and take away the binds of society – perhaps that could be their ideal alternate reality, but perhaps we would also end up with two different people, the jagged space between them neither love nor its possibility, but a vacuum.
Even in the years that they remain in each other’s orbit, the possibility of the next sighting is never certain. Their days of togetherness are limited to the summers when he visits and she travels to Delhi, never sure if there is another summer in their fate.
This, however, does nothing to the fertile emotional plane of their time together. The interlude with Richard inspires Manu to poetry: she wrote before him too, but after him, she eventually publishes her work; thinking of him when she writes, hoping he will think of her if he ever looks at them.
Uncoupling desire and love
Chittacobra is, foremost, a story about desire, and all the shapes it contorts into to settle into the crevices of the heart. These are not characters written to win over an old romantic; their ability to demand the reader’s empathy is rooted in their appeal to the most primitive of human urges – they want to be liked, they want tender attention, they want to be selfish in their wants.
When Manu hears about Richard travelling to Bangladesh to help victims of a natural disaster, she immediately ventures that she too would like to come along, but soon regrets this offer. In her desperation to get more time with Richard, she had claimed with certainty that she could bear it, but afterwards, she is unequivocal in noting her fear of losing her life in the pursuit of some noble cause. When her daughter falls sick, she laps up the opportunity to stay behind – it is a love embedded in the world and its truths, its resultant pushes and pulls complicated.
But this does not take away from Garg’s mastery at making the novel work at the level of abstraction: with regularity and ease, the narrative shifts to the sphere of Manu’s interiority. From a scene such as Manu frying koftas for a family dinner, the writing quickly moves to her contemplating a time when she will cease to be and then comes right back to the kitchen where the critical decision of how much to spice the food needs to be made. When she sits on her dressing table and looks into the mirror, her eyes almost beg for decay; every step away from the world that she inhabits would be a step towards a fantasy where a life with Richard would be possible, and a thousand wishes bloom.
More than 40 years ago, Garg created a storm by uncoupling desire and love, endowing upon each more depth in the process. In her adept translation of her own work, there is a rekindling of that exploration, which will bring to a whole new generation of readers the value of looking at stories as reflections of truth. It is not their existence that should bother us, but our own reaction to the uncomfortable realities they make possible to see.
Chittacobra, Mridula Garg, Speaking Tiger Books.