The year 2020 was a blur. The nationwide lockdown days from March 25 to May 31 could have been a long, elastic day or ten weeks of suspended time. It did not stop there; each state, city, and residential neighbourhood imposed their own restrictions to curb the spread of the virus – some were scientific while others mostly not. When the curbs were finally lifted, we did not emerge stronger from it – millions of lives and livelihoods were lost, and as a collective, something within us was permanently dimmed. Call it the glimmer of hope or the spark of life, if you will.

The subjects of Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s Soft Animal are Mallika, Mukund, and Gudiya the dog. Mallika and Mukund are married and there are no apparent splinters in their relationship. Gudiya the dog is Mallika’s mother’s indie who finds herself in a kennel after her owners get stuck in a different city when the lockdown is imposed. Guilt and familial obligations force Mallika to bring Gudiya home. Mukund is not too pleased about it, but he does not protest either. Gudiya and Mallika, two introverts against Mukund’s boisterous extroverted personality, quickly become friends.

Lockdown days

It is the lockdown days and their domestic worker, Tasleem, has been asked to stay home. Mallika is between jobs and Mukund is a savvy corporate executive. They are rich – as indicated by their reliance on food delivery service apps (and other apps in general) and not as affected by the lockdown as millions of other Indians who were forced to the streets and pushed further into the depths of poverty.

With Tasleem gone and Mallika unemployed, the chores of the house rest squarely on her shoulders. She is suddenly made to take stock of this enormous, endless responsibility – “I don’t have a penchant for housework; who does?” Suddenly she is working round the clock, picking up dirty clothes, replenishing the water bottle and carafes, cooking three meals a day, and hoping against hope that she won’t have to get down on her haunches and sweep and mop the floor when it gets unbearably dirty. In the meantime, Mukund is busy with his Zoom calls, chatting with friends and family, and shouldering none of the household tasks. An uninspired, everyday scene from every Indian home.

I cannot blame Mallika as she steadily begins to lose her temper with her husband. She seethes quietly but worries about how she has become “Predictable Mallika” – a wife who quietly cleans up after her husband when he won’t as much as thank her. The closeness enforced by the lockdown is unwelcome to both husband and wife. While Madhavan keeps the husband at an arm’s length – a people-pleaser with a mean streak – the wife’s first-person account of her publicly-demure-privately-fiery personality is equal parts despairing and familiar. Didn’t we all get sick of our housemates during those cursed weeks?

As we see the two of them orbiting each other, Mallika recounts how they met – both in their 30s – and got married – “a chore checked off”. It’s a sinister beginning and the present is no bed of roses either. Full of resentment for being holed into the role of a housewife, Mallika admits to keeping a “tally of things” she does around the house so he can never “blame” her. Their relationship is hurtling towards doom and only one of them seems to be aware of it. There is no passion, no love or hate – just two people thrown together in a confined space with missed opportunities and unexpressed resentment charging the air.

The (un)making of a marriage

Every day is the same shade of gray and so are the thoughts buzzing inside Mallika’s head – she doesn’t understand why the easy-go-lucky, rich south Delhi boy Mukund “settled” for her. She remembers submitting to his proposal for marriage and how her mother-in-law suddenly barged into her life. Rich, upper-caste Hindus, with a fondness for the right-wing central government, the Chugs (Mukund’s family) are offensive to everyone’s sensibilities, especially Mallika’s. And she is worried that her nosy mother-in-law will somehow get a whiff of The Cells – Mallika is pregnant and Mukund doesn’t know.

As a woman in her mid-30s, Mallika has been reminded many times that time is running out for her but the sudden appearance of The Cells is nothing to be thrilled about. She feels no maternal instincts – and yet, she constantly “dreams” children and her friend warns her against discarding the “gift from god” when she decides to get an abortion. Her conflicted attitude towards motherhood is further exacerbated when her family (who have no knowledge of her pregnancy) gently nudge her into considering having a child. Reddy puts this stifling situation into a clean sentence – “…it’ll go straight out of my hands, my womb, and become a family project.” That’s the phrase! A family project!

The husband and wife are so removed from each other’s realities that Mukund does not for once notice the sudden lethargy in his wife – okay he does, and mistakes it for the virus – and has no recollection of when she might have had her last period. Meanwhile, Mallika is so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she does not fully grasp the urgency of her condition. To her, The Cells are “transient”.

As she plods through the days, she firmly acknowledges that it is not just the situation that is chaffing away at her marriage. It is their carelessness, joint inability to think about the future, and falling into the traps of normative timelines that have brought them here. The pregnancy, the pandemic, and her husband’s aloofness worsen the crisis – “There’s a black hole in the centre of me, and all my emotions are sucked into it.”

As the winds of Mallika’s personal tragedies rage on, through small glimpses of the outside world, we see how even her humane self is at risk of disappearing. At home, she is reduced to her basest self – “eating, drinking, sleeping, shitting” – and when she goes out, she is tested by the direness of those not as fortunate as her. She deliberates giving money to a poor woman (worried she might spend it on drugs) until she relents and hands over a Rs 2,000 note, the tiredness in her elderly neighbour elicits panic in her instead of sympathy, and the sudden death of her elderly landlady brings her no sadness but only a tinge of worry about having to move out during a difficult time. In these moments, Mallika is immensely unlikeable…and almost animal-like.

But before I could judge her too harshly, I asked myself, wasn’t I too like this during the terrifying years of the pandemic? Weren’t we all? Didn’t we revert to the survival of the fittest policy – as though we were scrambling for a spot on Noah’s Ark – hoarded groceries, and shut our doors to the sick and the needy if only it meant higher chances of survival for ourselves? We are guilty of these and worse.

Soft Animal is about millennial marriage and motherhood, but it is also about how at the heart of it, we are all selfish, vengeful, self-preserving animals who crave touch and softness. While most of us manage to chain this unlikeable animal, in the direst times, we don’t hesitate to let it loose and devour the façade of humanity that we have so carefully built around us. I have rarely come across books by Indian authors that dwell on the rough edges of marriage or unwanted pregnancies, and this might be the only book that does both against the existential threat of the pandemic.

Soft Animal, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Penguin India.