Written by Devi S Laskar and described in her acknowledgments as an “experiment,” the Atlas of Reds and Blues is a story about a American-Indian woman in suburban Georgia dealing with racial inequality. This compact novel unpacks various levels of deprivation felt by the woman. On the surface, she seems to have it all – a loving husband, whom she refers to as the man of the hour, three beautiful daughters, a career as a journalist and aspirations of being a novelist.
However, Mother or Real Thing has a skin colour she just can’t rub off, and children who experience the same prejudice and whom she has to take care of all alone because of her husband’s demanding overseas job. The three daughters have all inherited her brown skin and seek to tell Daddy about the bullying they experience. Mother convinces them not to, saving her white husband from the trauma she experiences, and teaches them that the game is of the stiff upper lip – if you have not cried they have not won.
Mother is alone throughout the novel, except for her companion and best friend (also her ailing dog) Greta who reminds her constantly that she is visible. She is alone at work, where she is barely required and can’t write the stories that are of importance to her. She is also alone in the novel she never has time to write, has a mysterious baby sister whom she does not talk to, nosy suburban neighbours who leave passive-aggressive notes on her door, and parents and mother-in-law who fret over the size of her body.
Told in fragments
All these factors are present, and yet they are in the shadows in a sense. It’s hard to develop empathy for her issues because they are only fleetingly discussed in a series of fragmented chapters that may span merely two lines or stretch over two pages.
Yet the book packs a powerful punch. Designed with a brilliant deep blue cover and capital white titles, it doesn’t give away its immense depth instantly. It doesn’t reveal in its blurb that it is completely non-linear, with only fleeting encounters that serve as flashbacks for the woman who lies bleeding in her driveway when she is shot by a policeman.
The mosaic experience of the protagonist is a burst of emotion, each chapter recalling incidents that shaped her experience as the daughter of Bengali immigrants. In one, she recalls the scent of blood from her miscarriage. In another she treats herself to a signed copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison. In between, she is asked “where are you from?”
There is never a good enough answer. On its brilliant blue cover, there is a huge red stain, like the blood gushing out of a woman shot. The red stain is in the shape of an eagle, the symbol of the freedom in the United States of America from which Mother is excluded.
It began in real life
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided author Laskar’s home and held her at gunpoint, on a legal matter that was later dismissed. Inspired by this event, poet-turned-novelist Laskar decided to write about the journey of a woman who shifts from being polite to one who refuses to be complacent. In an interview, Laskar said about her experience with law enforcement: “It is a literary conceit to have a ‘life flashing before your eyes’ narrative, but it is also true that when you are going through a very difficult moment, your mind races through time to remember what’s important. I wanted to give that feeling to the narrator so she could impart it to the reader.”
Laskar holds an MFA from Columbia University. The form of her novel was inspired by the Malay verse Pantoum, which repeats lines and brings circularity to the content. The binding circularity of this book may be the moment of change in the protagonist: when she refuses to accept things as they were.
The endearing moments in the book are sparse. Mother is harassed by men on the street and is protected by Greta. And in that very moment the narrator informs the reader that Greta is too old and on the verge of death. Similarly, the man of the hour, her hero, writes her an email about how he dislikes her jotting down events of their daily life to convert into a novel. The narrator laughs over this observation and continues writing. However, when she wants to write as a journalist about the burning of Black churches, she is suspended. Her voice is often silenced, by both the husband, albeit in a charming, even heartfelt way, and the newspaper in a harsh and blatant way.
“It’s 2010, you can’t get away with this.”
Halfway through the novel, Mother describes herself as “timorous” in italics, meaning lacking in self-confidence or suffering from nervousness. And that is when it might hit the reader: There is circularity in the narrative, but for this character there is no central force. The moments and people she tries to hold on to keep slipping away. The unborn child who gets miscarried. The hero with the demanding international job. The dog who needs to be euthanised. And the only circular force one can find for her is race.
In an endearing moment, she is seen reading Half A Yellow Sun. In the next one, she is accused of eating unhealthy snacks while pregnant, which she was only purchasing for her husband, and then accused of lying about being married because her fingers are too swollen to wear her wedding ring. She is finally able to say: “It’s 2010, you can’t get away with this.”
But with an overwhelming narrative like this, the reader knows already that no one is going to stop the cop. They will continue to ask, “Where are you really from?” They will say, “Bless your heart.” They will not ask if her family is all right after her house is struck by thunder. In the book, the protagonist is shot. Laskar reveals this right at the beginning, leaving no real sense of mystery. Laskar herself refuses to be silent for the sake of her protagonist.
In an interview with Longreads, Laskar says: “Racism is a touchy subject. It’s hard to have a conversation without people feeling attacked and getting defensive. My hope was to write a book where everyone could stand next to the narrator and experience what it’s like to be peppered with those kinds of questions. Once the reader knows what it feels like, there’s no need to explain.”
For the writer, silence has neither worked nor provided answers. By refusing to be silent, Laskar provides herself, and many others who share her experience, a sense of personhood and dignity. The novel is sombre, empowering, and experimental; a rich reading experience on all fronts.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Devi S Laskar, Fleet.