In our times, it does seem a book needs a category to fit into, a neat label for itself. But Chaitali Sen’s novel, The Pathless Sky, isn’t just another work of immigrant fiction; that would be far too pat and casual. It’s intriguing in the many themes it explores, and raises – especially in how violence, its memories, and its reach, leaves an impact on everyone, especially two people involved in a relationship.
Political violence, in reference to recent decades, has figured in recent fiction by Indian American writers. The violence spawned by the Naxalite movement shadows the relationships that appear in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland – Udayan’s death, for instance, never allows things to settle between Gauri and Subhash.
In Karan Mahajan’s An Association of Small Bombs, a terror attack has implications on even those tangentially affected. Its scars linger and manifest themselves much later in life. And in a somewhat more oblique way, Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s Deep Singh Blue is set in north California, but some of its protagonists are drawn to the conflict raging in 1980s Punjab.
A fictional world of conflict
The Pathless Sky was published in the US in late 2015 by Europa – which has in recent years also won acclaim as the publisher of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated novels, including the Neapolitan Quartet. Sen sets her work and characters in a totally fictional world. It is a conceit intriguing in many ways; raising questions of plausibility, for instance.
John Merchant, when pressed on the matter, doesn’t know where he is really from for “no one is really from Alexandria” – which is not the Egyptian city as the reader might automatically assume. It is in college in Mt Belet that John meets Mariam from Sulat, a region where a conflict has raged even before her time.
The one conflict Mariam does know about is more immediate – the quite evident division between her parents, one that has in many ways led Mariam to resent her father. There’s another one that’s revealed to her only later; this relates to her grandfather, his escape to Germany, and his subsequent suicide: a revelation that leaves Mariam conflicted in certain ways.
It may be hard in the beginning to place this fictional universe on a map. Sulat is in the north, where we learn only gradually of the conflict between Catholics and Muslims. Alexandria, John’s home, is where the elite largely lives. The military outpost John leaves for when he is called up is eighteen hours away by train, making the country almost as big as India.
Other characters feature with names (sometimes with just first names), like Vic Arora, Nina, or John’s professors Malick and Nehemia – that can be easily placed but then are also universal. The scenes and reports might remind us of graphic newspaper accounts – an innocent family killed for no reason, a survivor’s anguish, the censorship, the suspicion, the suppression of crucial war information.
But the attempt to draw analogies doesn't really matter after a while. For this novel is more about how conflict and everyday violence shapes and moulds human behaviour and everyday emotions: a book that follows almost in the fine traditions of novels such as The Plague.
Rebels in the northern province of Sulat, where Marian is from and where she returns after her father’s sudden illness, have engaged militarily with the government; the army has a strong presence in the region. Reports of atrocities and casualties only grow in the period when John and Mariam find themselves away from each other.
Metaphors of the earth
The campus at Mt Belet is a politically neutral place. It offers a benign environment, and descriptions of the library, dorms, even of the falling snow, evoke in some ways the film Love Story. But it is when Mariam is forced to return home to the English Canal in Sulat, and John is called up for military service, that the conflict intrudes.
From then on, it will shadow their lives and the decisions they make – relating to careers, having a family, and even routine ones like making a journey out of the country. Weighed against such wider forces of political violence, individual choice takes on a poignant turn, making blame difficult, and betrayal and resentment, dangerously easy.
Letters and documents have a role to play as well. Mariam’s letters, for instance, never reach John. He learns afterwards that they have been confiscated. Later, Mariam’s attempts to secure a passport for herself, a vital document granting identity, and one that will help her out of the country, prove frustratingly elusive.
Along with the wonderful passages on John and Mariam’s lovemaking, this book resonates with some powerful lingering imagery. For instance, roads like x-rays that cut through land claiming it. And on another page, blue is the colour of oceans and the sky, but also, as Mariam says, the colour of twilight and sadness. As it happens, she is wearing a blue dress (inadvertently, it’d appear) when she and John meet again after long years apart.
The world of geology that John inhabits works as an effective contrary metaphor. It is his work of understanding earth formations, the evidence hidden away below the surface for centuries, that intrigue him. It helps him belong in a way he otherwise finds difficult; almost in the same way, that Anil, the forensic pathologist in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, tries to painstakingly reconstruct a recovered skeleton and its story, in the hope that this will enable her to understand the Sri Lankan-Tamil conflict.
But there are other conflicts too, universally humane, that come to matter in this novel and are never really explained fully. For instance, the relations between Mariam’s parents, Omar and Arifa, compounded by the presence of the invisible Elizabeth; how Mariam appears conflicted over her own virginity and how she loses it in some hurry to an unnamed, rather comically prudish, widower; and then Mariam’s relationship with her mother Arifa, complicated over the years, by the latter’s silence.
Does this long-running conflict, that will never really ebb, make it imperative and necessary for John to love Mariam? Or is it their love that enables them to take the conflict in stride? This becomes the proverbial chicken and egg question.
John once explains to his mentor, Dr Malick, that understanding the earth helps him in some ways to belong, but as this novel, beautiful in many ways, shows, it is John and Mariam who truly belong to each other.
The Pathless Sky, Chaitali Sen, Europa Editions.