Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, had thoroughly impressed me. A Canadian-American of Indian origin, Vara deftly tackled the ills of the many millennia-old caste system and how it remains deeply embedded in the Indian psyche despite technological and social progress. The novel also takes a peep into a future where memories can be transferred from one person to another. In such a dystopia (very similar to ours, actually), innovation is confused with goodness and uncritical worship of tech billionaires is the new-age religion. Vara’s novel was not just innovative but daring – if the past had perpetuated unspeakable violence that continues to this day, the future would only exacerbate these pains. After all, historical wrongs cannot be righted with a new gadget or a new app.
In many ways, The Immortal King Rao was a novel of the world – the caste system might be uniquely Indian (or South Asian), but the concerns of technology, alienation, and materialism worry each one of us to some degree or another. Being a tech journalist also helped Vara to critically understand the extent of these problems and why viable solutions are so hard to find.
Womanhood in motion
If her debut novel spoke to an audience, her latest book of short stories This is Salvaged, holds one-on-one conversations with the reader. It is a very closed-off world where Vara, her characters, and her readers exist – there is grief, there is disgust, there is little happiness, and terrible loneliness. It is difficult to pinpoint if the world at large has anything to do with these private tumults but families and friends are potent – and even lethal – sources of causing much agony in our lives. I think of her novel as a man – has a lot to say, eyes always turned outwards – and the book of short stories as a woman – quiet, composed, reflective. It took Vara more than a decade to put together this book and I am quite sure that some of the stories were written around the time when The Immortal King Rao was taking shape, and yet, these two books could not be more different from each other.
In ten stories, Vara takes the reader through a myriad of themes, the most prominent of which are womanhood, sisterhood, ageing, and climate change. In the first story, “The Irates”, a teenage girl takes up the job of a telemarketer after her brother dies of cancer – grief becomes solid and sticks to the skin, difficult to get rid of and impossible to emerge out of. Coincidentally, Vara too lost her sister to cancer in 2001 and the book is dedicated to her.
Grief and loneliness take a sinister shape in “I, Buffalo” where a middle-aged woman – also single and alcoholic – is unable to recognise the source of stench that’s coming from somewhere inside her house. On the other hand, an eight-year-old girl in “You Are Not Alone” finds herself alienated from her newly married father and institutionalised mother as she tries to put together some sort of relationship with her father and his new bride. Two women, apart in ages but united in their helplessness. Reconnecting with fathers is a cause already lost from the start and that is exactly what happens in “What Next”. Mayuri has been promised a meeting with her birth father on her eighteenth birthday but for a kinship that has its roots in thoughtlessness, is there any possibility for love and familiarity to find its way in?
The body inside and outside
In “Hormone Hypothesis” and “Sibyls”, we see what a “community” means to women. Menstruation, perimenopause, and menopause are constant pains and the eternal waltz of hormones – oxytocin, oestrogen, testosterone – is hardly ideal but that is the truth of existing in a woman’s body. An endless cycle of physical and psychological suffering. “Sibyls” confronts corporeal decay – an inevitability of ageing. Loss of memory, shrinking in size and limited physical mobility, and how this impermanence is also reflected in our surroundings when even our homes and neighbours become unfamiliar to us. In both stories, women turn to each other for care and companionship, support and revival of happier times, and assurance and sympathy as they slowly become invisible to the more productive (and reproductive) population.
“The Eighteen Girls” are micro-stories within a story about young girls, and the relationship between sisters – sacred, life-affirming, exasperating. Philosophical existentialism looms large in “Unknown Unknowns” and “Puppet Master Made the Puppets”. The stories ask: What does being alive mean? There are no answers to these questions. We are born with some fanfare and we die in the way we were destined to die.
In the title story, “This is Salvaged”, an artist of some repute who has gone through a divorce recently sets out for what every man going through a midlife crisis is inclined to do – to save the world. He begins to construct a life-size Biblical ark to assert the seriousness of climate change. The mission is noble (though not unique, similar arks have been built in the Netherlands and Hong Kong) but soon enough the artist gets caught up in the more mortal pursuits of life – having sex with a woman many years younger than him and thus inviting the envy and wrath of other suitors. Needless to say, everything literally and figuratively goes up in flames.
Death is a major preoccupation in Vara’s stories. In my favourite, “Sibyls”, the child protagonist thinks of death thus: “Dead. She was a human, a being of the highest order, so I had been told, and yet she – like a raccoon on the roadside or a fly on the windowsill – was dead.” The eventuality and finality of death – and all ends – is inescapable, the brackets of our lives are strictly defined and yet so much goes wrong and so little we get right in our finite time alive.
Though morbid and deeply discomfiting, This is Salvaged is a deeply felt portrayal of human relationships, including those that transcend sexual and filial ties. It is also about the primal human need to coalesce into communities and nurture relationships even when the hypercapitalist world wants us to believe that we can survive just fine despite the fatal levels of loneliness and individualism that have become synonymous with urban living.
This is Salvaged: Stories, Vauhini Vara, HarperCollins India.