Book review

A French novel, written by a Mauritian writer, brings home our experience in India like few books do

‘Eve Out Of Her Ruins’ is written by Ananda Devi, a writer of Indian origin from Mauritius.

A few of us have been to Mauritius, many of us want to go. It stares back from our calendars and screen-savers, all aquamarine seas and pure sands, the archetype of the island paradise. Yet, as with most paradises, whether the Maldives, Mauritius or Goa, many of the residents of this idyllic place themselves dream of escape.

In Eve Out of Her Ruins, the titular character’s mother covers the cement walls of their sordid apartment with “pictures of Mount Fuji with a charming Japanese woman in the foreground,” and “Swiss hills with cows cleaner than most people.” She fantasises about getting out, as do most of the residents of one of the poorest parts of Mauritius, Troumaron, “a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.”

Long arcs of desire

It is in Troumaron, where “trash hammers the road like shrapnel,” that author Ananda Devi – a Mauritian writer of Indian origin, who writes in French – sets her darkly illuminating tale of desire, murder and revenge. Told from the point of view of four teenaged characters – Eve, Saad, Savita, and Clélio – who are all seeking their own means of escape – through sex, through writing, through friendship, and through violence – the plot unfolds in a manner that is predictable, if you think of this book as a novel, or fated, if you think of it as a tragedy.

Eve, with the face of a “comic-strip mouse,” grows into a sexually magnetic teenager who barters her body to neighbourhood boys for the things and the favours that might help her escape their wretched neighbourhood. Saad loves her (as well as the poetry of Rimbaud). Eve does not reciprocate. Saad scrawls poems along her building walls, waits for her, watches her, and in several comico-poetic scenes, lusts after her “in long arcs of desire.”

Clélio is the baddest kid in a bad neighbourhood (though he may just be its most innocent). Savita is Eve’s closest friend, her love, her protector, her double, her twin. In this world – in the shadow of a shutdown factory, far from the sunglasses of tourists – teenage boys (even Saad) roam in packs, spreading “a pool of oil around them,” and things go terribly wrong. A murder is committed. A death is avenged.

The familiar within the unfamiliar

But the plot is not the point here. Nor even is the much-feted, fevered beauty of Ananda Devi’s originally French prose, which burns through in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation, if a bit too fiercely. Instead, we in India should read this story of desire and sexual violence because it provides us with the stark insight that comes when the radically different contains within it the utterly familiar. Eve Out of Her Ruins explores questions that are pertinent to our contemporary experience in a manner that few other recent books have done.

What does it feel like to be a single woman driving on a city street who suddenly realises that she is being followed? What is it like to be the boy who gives chase?

“They drag me toward the city, toward our prison. I get on Kenny’s moped. Before he can stop me, I’m gone. I take a long winding route through Port Louis, lit up by its hot dust, I go along the Rue la Corderie where the smell of salted fish fills my nostrils, take a shortcut up the Rue Wellington, go down the Rue la Poudrière where I wave to the old   ghosts of whores behind the stone walls, and I come back along the Champ de Mars, where the Citadel watches me with its black eye. On the way, I bang into people, ride on sidewalks, weave past cars, manage not to get knocked over by buses belching black smoke. All the insults blur together. I laugh, people notice, everyone’s staring at me. I give them the finger, I scrape an SUV, its bumpers big enough to push off nonexistent buffalo, with a little lady behind a steering wheel bigger than she is. She sees me dragging a key across the brand-new car, rolls down her window, but once I get to her and smile, she doesn’t say a word, I lick my lips and she blushes, yes, I’m telling you, she blushes and rolls the window back up to shut out the cool air that had been blowing across my face. Her face crumples up like she’s about to cry, it’s not pretty at all, the lady in her arctic monster with a heart so soft she can’t even yell at me. I blow her a kiss with my fingertips and memorise her licence plate and go my way with a smile.

What is is like to come of age in a place where you and most women you know have been groped, molested, or sexually harassed at least once?

Everything I learn leaves a wound on my body. That knowledge is painful and hard-won…It’s a joke to them. I’m all alone. Everyone else is an onlooker. I’m already feeling naked. I shut my eyes and bear it. I play the game. I’ll always be the one a man squints at from far off until his hands find me. Men’s hands take hold of you before having even touched you. Once their thoughts turn toward you, they’ve already possessed you. Saying no is an insult, because you would be taking away what they’ve already laid claim to. Like the hand snaking up my T-shirt, they need me to lift my skin so they can feel my organs, or even stop my heart from beating. Their urges won’t be constrained. Soon there’ll be nothing left to take but they’ll keep going anyway.

But why should I let them?

What is it like to die in a place where you will be blamed by those you love for your own murder?

They don’t want to know me. They want to be alone with their dead body. But the final act has made their daughter unspeakable. Behind their horrified faces, the silent question etched in their eyes is this: What did she do to make this happen? She is an active participant in her own murder. Even now she is still complicit. Even now she is her own murderer. This is how they feel.”

Stronger than the news

There are places where fiction outstrips the news in its ability to depict contemporary horrors. Think of Stieg Larson’s gripping, bestselling Lisbeth Salander series, after reading which it becomes difficult to think of a Swede in power who doesn’t have a personal dungeon – this in a country that is far more gender equitable than most others. And there are places where the brutality of the news will any day outstrip fiction’s capacity to artfully refract everyday horror and sexual violence in a culturally meaningful way.

India is one such place. It has long been said that we lack truly stellar crime fiction, but maybe crime fiction, with its vulturous fervor for young female bodies (except in its most subversive avatars) isn’t the genre through which we can unpack that which we read about, sickened, everyday.

Maybe we need more literary fiction – from our place, and from other far-off places – to give us insights into sexual violence from the point of view of those experiencing it, perpetrating it, living through it, living with it. Despite the hackneyed plot, Eve Out of Her Ruins has much that is forceful and true, and it dares to tread where we often don’t want to – the traumatic intersection of desire, violence, power, poverty and shame.

Eve Out of Her Ruins, Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Speaking Tiger Books.

Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are her own.

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