Vivek Shanbhag has mastered the art of naming a novel. I remember being confused by what “Ghachar Ghochar” meant when I first heard about the book (there’s no equivalent of the phrase in English), and ever since Sakina’s Kiss was announced, I wondered who Sakina was and what was so special about her kiss. The book description didn’t yield any information – the name Sakina does not appear in it at all. And just to clear any confusion, this is not a romance.

But Venkataraman – Venkatraman to his college classmates and Venkat to his colleagues – used to be a romantic man once. At least in the first two months of his marriage. Viji and he married after six months of deliberations, the honeymoon was in a misty hill station, the first sexual encounter was intense and never repeated with the same intimacy, and to their surprise, both preferred reading self-help books. On the honeymoon, Viji also discovered they both had the same self-help book in their bags. It is the genre they liked best.

Venkat is proud to be married to Viji. She has a stable IT job and a firm head on her shoulders – he doubts whether he can “rein” her in, but soon gives up on this primal male desire in exchange for a relatively happy marriage.

Primal masculinity

The mirage of a marriage – however happy – does not last long. Especially, once a baby arrives. Though conceived in a moment of unchecked passion, Viji blurts out, “The only obstacle in my path is Rekha,” when her maternal and spousal duties clash with each other. The discontent sets in and their daughter Rekha becomes, if not an obstacle, the reason for the ever-growing chasm between husband and wife.

It starts when Rekha is to be enrolled in a school and Venkat finds himself in a direct confrontation with his wife and her ideals. Cut to the present, he doesn’t understand what the mother and daughter keep whispering about behind his back. Priding himself as a “liberal” man, he wonders how he fell out with the women in his family.

Venkat’s story is not confined to his Bengaluru flat. He recounts growing up in a strange family in the village – his father was mild-mannered but strict, his uncle was short-tempered and prone to angry outbursts, his mother was cheated by her husband, which became a cause of lifelong sadness, and his mother’s brother’s property was stolen by Venkat’s father. Sadness and betrayal saturated the air at home but one could not miss the occasional whiff of rebellion.

Ramanna, Venkat’s uncle, is a mysterious figure. The strange letters he writes to his sister are puzzles for Venkat and his mother to solve, but to his uncle and father, the letters are no more valuable than garbage. The cloud of patriarchal dread hangs heavy on the family. And Venkat, the man that he is, has grown up in and nurtured by its shade.

He has failed to keep his wife in check, but he hopes to succeed with his daughter. Venkat tries his best to stop Rekha from going to concerts and staying the night at a friend’s place, he tries to persuade her to study science (she chooses the arts), and is condescending about those she looks up to. He’s not above suspecting her of being in a relationship with older men (her mentor, a married journalist) and is dismissive of her budding political awareness.

His masculinity, which has moulded itself and taken a more “modern” shape, has seeped in through the cracks. He might not raise his voice at his wife but he expects some degree of servitude, and physically stopping his young daughter are acceptable methods of disciplining. Venkat is a lonely figure – rejected by his wife and unimportant to his daughter. This loneliness is of his own making. And yet, I found myself sympathising with him. Like Ramanna, who was denied the piece of land he was entitled to since birth, Venkat too is robbed of being the “man” of the family – a position he feels entitled to by virtue of his gender. I tried to imagine what such a loss might feel like – to be so sure of your place in the world only to realise that times have changed and traditions are up for scrutiny.

Disappearances and unanswered questions

The characters walk in and out of the story without any explanation. Disappearance is the essence of the story. Rekha disappears for a few days without any explanation, Ramanna has disappeared forever. Their Bengaluru flat was probably broken into but Venkat cannot say for sure if anything (gold, cash, documents) has disappeared. The wife and daughter that Venkat knew have disappeared and their place has been taken by two women who have shut him off from their world. Unknown and unspoken dangers loom large, ready to strike any moment but only the mother and daughter show the courage to stand up to them.

In comparison, Venkat is rather cowardly. For him, self-help books hold sacred truths, he is incapable of standing up to his uncle’s uncouth ways, and he is easily influenced by whichever panellist is loudest on a news channel debate. Tiwari, who had once given him helpful advice, becomes his guru of sorts and during tense moments with Viji, he worries whether she thinks his thoughts are his “own” or implanted by Tiwari. His cowardice becomes more evident when he does not counter the sexist opinions of a politician speaking on TV, despite the clear discomfort of his daughter and wife. He fails to stand up for them – at a moment when they need him the most – and proves that his status as a man is more important to him than that of a father or a husband.

The final scene of the novel, deceptively simple in its construction, allows deep contemplation. What awaits Venkat on the other side of the life he has carefully built? What will the disappearances and silences, that have haunted him all his life, finally reveal? He’s a man at sea – unmoored by the past and disoriented by the present. Sakina’s Kiss throws up question after question, but it doesn’t bother to answer them all – perhaps because the answers are already known to us.

Srinath Perur’s careful translation leaves the silence intact. There is no attempt to explicitly reveal what the text wants to keep unsaid. Perur has said that translating Shanbhag is a collaborative effort with the author and perhaps that is why the authorial intent shines equally bright in the English rendition. As for Shanbhag, he turns the idea of honour, which is so vital to middle-class Indian families, on its head. After all, who can pretend to be honourable when lies and secrets pile on so high that your own family disappears out of sight?

Sakina’s Kiss, Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, Penguin India.