Book review

When a young woman loves a man and a lake is filled with Naxalite corpses

KR Meera’s Malayalam novella 'The Gospel of Yudas' combines straight narrative with allegory.

“I had heard that the blood-red, gooey mud at the bottom of the lake had magnetic power. Once you were trapped in its field, you couldn’t escape. There was another lake boiling underneath the bed of this one. I wanted to get there. The upper lake tried to stop me.”

Being mesmerised, so that you don’t want to escape, and constantly aware of other layers beyond the one you’re engaged with…such can also be the effect of reading KR Meera’s strange, compelling novel The Gospel of Yudas. On the face of it, this is a story about a woman pursuing an enigmatic man for half a lifetime – the words quoted above come from Prema, who is 15 years old when her narrative begins in 1985 – but there are other, ghostly currents flowing below that plot synopsis.

The man whom Prema is besotted with is Yudas, who spends most of his time retrieving corpses from the village lake. The bodies are mainly those of revolutionaries, including people who may have died after being tortured by the state (of which Prema’s father, an ex-cop, was an instrument), and Yudas is probably a Naxalite or one-time Naxalite himself.

For Prema, he is also “the champion of my liberation struggle”, who “carried the burden of human sins to redeem this world”. She asks him to teach her how to swim, but what she really wants is to sink, to achieve full immersion (in the lake, or in a cause?). She seems fated her entire life to fantasise about being a revolutionary without quite getting to be one, and Yudas is her ever-receding window to that world.

Conjectures and questions

This is a disquieting book, its off-kilter quality coming from its mixing of conventional narrative with allegory, hard politics with abstractions about human lives and desires. At times it behaves like a story with a straightforward arc and identifiable plot strands (such as Yudas’s tragic love for a woman named Sunanda, or Prema’s meeting with her father’s superior officer, once known as the Beast but now a fragile old man), but it isn’t interested in a clear resolution. Instead it works throughout on a symbolic plane, where a reader, simultaneously fascinated and frustrated, is invited to make conjectures and ask questions like: what does the lake stand for?

Here is one possible answer (and this isn’t necessarily what the author intended): the lake’s depths represent the tug of idealism and the activist spirit; the desire to rebel against crushing, unfeeling authority. But beyond this village lake, there are – as Yudas reminds Prema at one point – bigger water bodies, markers of a larger world. As human experience broadens, as people grow older and more world-weary, they also let go of ideas that were once important to them. Except for a chosen few like the brave Sunanda and the other bodies claimed by the lake – people who never got the chance to become jaded or complacent.

It is tempting to see The Gospel of Yudas – with its many references to Naxalism and to real-world events such as the 1970s Emergency (and other possible dictatorships lurking in the future) – as a purely political story. But in its gentler, more reflective passages it is also about more general things. It is about mad love, and about what we lose and gain over time. (“I am an old man now,” Yudas tells Prema in one of the book’s starkest, most moving passages, “Time to let go of everything.”) It is about the all-consuming nature of power. And one of the most pressing questions of all: is it better to plunge full-heartedly into a cause, sacrifice yourself to it so completely that you might never surface, or to grapple with the smaller, more quotidian challenges posed by a long life? “I was alive,” Prema says near the end, “In this world, for poor people like us, oughtn’t the sheer act of being alive be counted as a revolution in itself?”

“Revolutions do not cease. Little people persist.”

In the beginning, though, she had warned us that this was going to be a story about cadavers. She is talking about the dredged-up corpses, but she could also mean the living dead who watched their opportunities slip by, constantly doomed to wonder if they made the right decisions, if they were too cowardly when it mattered. This book is an elegy for both sorts of people.

The Gospel of Yudas was first published in Malayalam as Yudasinte Suvisesham, and has been translated into English by Rajesh Rajamohan. Speaking with the disadvantage of having no knowledge of the original, I felt it didn’t read as fluidly as Hangwoman, J Devika’s translation of Meera’s wonderful Aarachaar. There is some casualness in the prose, which is fine – it could be an attempt to relay the earthy, conversational timbre of the original – but there is some awkward phrasing too, some moments that felt off-key or jarring – sentences like “My father’s generation rolled up and down to rid themselves of my generation’s bravery and grit to love, trust and fight”, or “Come inside, he invited.”

There are a few outright mistakes too: “She had a flowing long hair.” And surely the line “he seemed to recall the name from his memory” could have dropped the final three words without losing any fealty to the original text.

This sort of thing took me out of the story at times, but it is compensated for by the fact that the content itself is so evocative, and the dilemmas of Prema and Yudas so easy to empathise with as we move back and forth between them. Reading this book, I was occasionally reminded of Max Ophuls’s beautiful 1948 film Letter from an Unknown Woman, another story about a young girl – who grows before our eyes into a woman – being obsessed with a man and encountering him at intervals in her life. As the years roll past in that narrative, the two characters change in different ways, and though the woman is our point of entry into the story while the man is a cipher, we eventually come to wonder about his inner life as well. Something similar happens in Meera’s book, which is a big story about political struggle, about history’s forgotten heroes and footnotes, but also an intimate account of two people repeatedly passing each other like boats in the night, buffeted along by the undercurrents of a deep and dark lake.

The Gospel of Yudas, KR Meera, translated from the Malayalam by Rajesh Rajamohan, Hamish Hamilton.

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