Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll may be the holy trinity of hedonism but in Sangeetha Sreenivasan’s novel Acid, the phrase takes on a more complex and different meaning.

Originally written in Malayalam (the novel won the 2017 Thoppil Ravi award), Acid tells the story of two difficult women, Kamala and Shaly, who are bound by their tempestuous, all-consuming romance and run a household in Bangalore. Kamala’s twin sons, Aadi and Shiva, are bonded together in their own way, by an accident that paralysed Shiva for life, making Aadi his caretaker. Their already complicated lives become more unstable after Kamala’s mother dies in her ancestral house in Kerala prompting them to move there permanently. It’s a plot that Sreenivasan uses to brilliantly overturn the idea of motherhood and family, presenting us with a household that is as dysfunctional as it can gets. And then she adds LSD into the mix.

An unlikely family

Acid takes the conflicts and emotions of this unlikely family of four and magnifies them. To such an extent that their burden is expelled like an acerbic outpouring of bile from the body, disfiguring it in the process. But in its essence, the novel centres around women, who drive the story.

The women in Acid are the women in our lives – extraordinary yet simple, unattached yet full of love, fragile yet strong. Kamala is arguably the worst mother you might come across in a book (or in real life). She constantly suffers from bad trips, irrespective of whether she’s on acid or not. She reimagines the past, escapes into dreams-turned-nightmares and ultimately becomes numb to the present. But Kamala is also a caring mother when she can remember it – she lovingly decides to make French toast for her children and even gives Shiva a bath after Aadi decides to take a break and travel, away from the sad maddening life he’s used to.

Shaly, on the other hand, comes across as the opposite of Kamala. She’s the one who introduces Kamala to acid but seems unaffected by it herself. Shaly has a past of her own, one that she doesn’t pay attention to until Kamala unravels. Sreenivasan says that part of her inspiration to write Acid were the women; that she could “perceive an intangible vacuum booming up within and frothing out incessantly” when she looked at them. “I wanted to give voice to this void,” she says.

The story of everywoman

While Kamala and Shaly are in a tumultuous relationship, Sreenivasan reminds us that lesbian love is not the theme here, but rather a woman’s depressive tryst with life that intensifies when she has to make compromises in the name of tradition. Kamala has to marry her cousin Madhavan, give birth to children, be a responsible wife, mother and a daughter first before exploring what gives her true happiness. Acid is then a story of everywoman: seen either as a husband’s property or a father’s (or mother’s) daughter or a child’s mother but never as an independent human being who can and want to think and feel for herself.

Kamala tries to subvert these expectations by travelling alone (where she meets Shaly) and by trying to stop her marriage to her cousin, but she finally lives for herself only in her caustic, hallucinatory world. For Sreenivasan who translated the novel from Malayalam into English herself, it was “almost like writing the same book a second time”, giving her the opportunity to make cuts to the original and make it a sharper novel.

A dark and hallucinatory experience

Acid itself follows a hallucinatory path. Events don’t have a timeline; instead, they’re a haphazard cacophony of colours. And what’s a psychedelic experience without psychedelic music? From Pink Floyd and Funkadelic to The Chambers Brothers and The Temptations, music runs through the book. Even Kumar Gandharva and Eminem find a mention in Kamala’s hallucinatory and real visions. Sreenivasan also gives a nod to psychedelic prose, of Neruda, Gustave Flaubert and Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri.

But as much as the novel is a litany of rich literary and poetic references, a dark cloud of gloom hangs over it. Death is described with more imagery than life itself, such as Kamala’s dead mother who looked like nobody’s mother in particular – “a disfigured skeleton wrapped in loose skin”. Or her father, who died in his forties – “he had lived only to be photographed and framed, a shiny scalpel with a sharp edge”. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that Acid, quite aptly named, is one long headrush of a trip from start to finish; a psychedelic experience that leaves you thinking for hours after you’ve consumed and digested it.

Acid, Sangeetha Sreenivasan, translated from the Malayalam by the author, Penguin.