The crux of KR Meera’s new novel, The Unseeing Idol of Light, might arrive quite late – “When some women leave, they also take with them the sight of those men who had loved them” – but it stays with you for a long time. That Meera is the master of writing about love and loss is well-known, but in The Unseeing Idol of Light, her study of the searing and complex pain of blinding love, becomes quite literal.

A missing wife

On a fateful day, Prakash’s pregnant wife Deepti, travelling from Cochin to Calicut, goes missing. Overcome with grief and loss, Prakash loses his eyesight. But that doesn’t deter him from searching for her in hospitals, morgues and homeless shelters, accompanied by his childhood friend Shyam, who is as obsessed, if not more, with finding Deepti. Shyam and Deepti’s father find an emaciated woman with a similar story, and the former is convinced she is Prakash’s wife. But to his friend’s fury, Prakash announces that he wants to marry Rajani, a woman he has an affair with.

Translated lyrically by Ministhy S, The Unseeing Idol of Light is, on the surface, the story of a wife’s disappearance and a husband’s grief. But Meera’s brilliance makes us realise that this isn’t the story of just one woman but of the many nameless women in the country who go missing in that place between darkness and luminescence.

Light and darkness

The book then, in its essence, becomes about the dual nature of light and dark. Prakash, although shunned to a life of darkness – both literally and figuratively – after his pregnant wife Deepti’s departure, is the epitome of light in a dark, dark world. As Meera writes, Prakash existed many years just by “carrying her presence in his heart”, merely reflecting her. Rajani, the other woman to vie for Prakash’s affections, is the opposite – she is the dark turbulent storm, uprooting trees, houses, rocks and occasionally hearts in her wake. Even in his memories, Deepti is luminous, like the shimmering rays of a new dawn, but Rajani is like the evening that darkens over; a gloomy night coming to a close.

For Prakash, a librarian, loss isn’t new. As a child, he’s seen his father hang himself and his uncle leave his aunt for a younger, attractive woman. As an adult, he’s seen his wife go missing, which eventually deteriorated his eyesight and is no longer able to see the world in the same way, without his women in it. However, Prakash is as consumed by the loss of Deepti as he is by the loss of his father and images soon start to tie both his wife and father together. Obsessed with finding out why his acchan, a kind and principled judge, killed himself, Prakash starts writing 500 letters to his father’s friend, who reveals an unexpected truth, in turn.

Feminist imagery

In fleshing out the characters of the two women at the heart of the story and the protagonist Prakash’s contrasting love for them, as well as in capturing the way men box Deepti and Rajani within the patriarchal binary (the acquiescent wife versus the evil temptress), Meera brings out the feminist imagery we know so well in her books. It is imagery that is immediately relatable and familiar to every woman out there, regardless of whether they have loved, lost or mourned men. In Rajani’s rumination (an excellent choice of word for this character – whom is previously compared to a frog – akin to that of a cow chewing a cud) we learn it’s not just she who hadn’t known a man. Meera is once again at her finest when she compares men to “fathomless wells that reached down to hell” and when she explores their “noxious depths” that hold treachery and danger and concealed dark, shimmering water. It not only reminds women that perhaps we don’t really know the men with us, but also that holding on to obsessive and selfish love can consume us with an intense hunger that is never satiated.

The Unseeing Idol of Light is a poignant and intense experiment in what would happen to men’s lives without the women in them. A horrifying reality that stares us in our face; one that does not just give rise to an epidemic of loneliness, but conceals a chimerical world. Although the plot seems a little loosely and hurriedly tied towards the end, Meera’s descriptions of the pain and violence that the women face – physical, mental – catches us at the very edge of a cliff, just inches away from a steep drop, before we’re rescued by the cool reassurance of unconditional love. It is hard to hold a grudge against the author with prose as powerful as hers. This book is a monumental work of passion that pulls in a rich mosaic of emotions, encompasses the ambiguity of light and darkness, and tells us the universal truth about how love can be both freeing and enslaving.

The Unseeing Idol Of Light, KR Meera, Penguin Random House India.