“Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.”

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.”

Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light – now shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 – invokes Richard Silken’s poem Scheherazade. She quotes him, along with Anne Carson, Bukowski, Jack Gilbert, and many others in her book. Yet she does not rest on the prowess of other artists; creating instead a neat little space of her own, much like her characters so desperately set out to do themselves. Her protagonist Deeya, is a young woman, relying – much like all of us – on art as a getaway and fantasy but has her family as the sharp reminder of her roots and wounds.

The story begins with Amamma: Deeya’s grandmother – the tale of a young and carefree woman in pre-independent India interspersed with her present-day Alzheimer patient-like existence. Her story is enmeshed with crass comments she makes about her granddaughter Dee’s breasts while nourishing her grandchildren with revered and wondrous fairy-tales that shape their lives. Her identity is fleeting. Bhaskar never lets her reader pin Amamma down. She is perhaps not as successful with her other female characters in this regard. The book meanders, much like its title. It is a book of waiting; littered with commas, shifting through the lives of the women that inhabit this story, never really reaching an end.

Amamma represents, somewhat, the first tragedy of this book. She is sixteen and flirting with a boy when she is married off to a much older man who already has a spouse. She is called in as a second wife because the first one has been unable to bear children. She is merely fulfilling a function. She has to find happiness by consuming herself in that role. To construct a lie around it, to deceive herself into enjoying being someone’s wife: “Amamma, as a sixteen-year-old at the threshold of marriage, knew something of childhood sorrow. There she sat in a bullock cart, in a rumpled dhavani three inches too short, about to be whisked away by a strange/soon-to-be-spouse.”

Deeya narrates the life of her grandmother with equal parts fact and fiction. She imagines the life her Amamma must have had. She reconstructs memories to give herself hope when she is falling in love herself. But when her own world sets into a turmoil, she brings into focus Amamma’s real life. The tragic life of childhood sorrow.

“I can hear her now, my grandmother, her soft sob of grief. In her briefly, I see myself a night into my marriage. She weeps as I did. I weep as she must have. We think of similar things. Of emptiness.”

Love and stories

Scheherazade is the story-teller of A Thousand and One Nights; a woman who tells stories to save her life. As the tale goes, Scheherazade is to spend a night with a despotic king Shahryar who has had an unfaithful wife. In order to avenge himself, he decides to marry a virgin every night and behead her the next day so she does not have the opportunity to be unfaithful to him.

Scheherazade decides to break the cycle by captivating him with her story-telling skills. She tells him a story that never ends, so for 1001 nights, he is unable to slay her. When she has nothing else to say, she realises he has fallen for her and she ends up as his queen.

Women often weave stories to save their lives. Into these stories they fold in tension and escape. A continuation, an undeniable lie. The women of Bhaskar’s novel are no different. When Deeya introduces the reader to her mother, Mamma is waiting to be assigned a match for her future husband. There, a painter finds her and falls in love with her at first sight. He bribes the astrologer who convinces Mamma’s family that he is the true man for her. Even if Amamma instinctually knows otherwise.

Mamma and Daddy have three children together and live in Bombay, where he leaves painting behind to earn a living. They are not the fairytale Deeya imagines they are or Mamma so desperately wants them to be. They fight and sometimes, they do not make up. He eventually leaves; a predictable move that, although anticipated, hurts nonetheless. Thereon, Mamma gifts her three daughters the magic of story-telling, transforming them into Scheherazade(s).

“Besides seeking escape in work, my mother coped by arranging and rearranging the details of the past, tweaking elements that seemed discordant, adding flourishes.

Mamma and Daddy got married, not because of a scheming astrologer, but at the behest of her parents. Daddy hand-picked a stable vocation, not to satisfy Mamma, but to earn acclaim.

Scratch that out.

Mamma got married to Daddy, not to please her parents, but because my father relentlessly pursued her. Daddy became a reporter, not to earn acclaim, but for the love of story-telling.

Scratch that out.

Mamma got married to Daddy, not because my father relentlessly pursued her –

That was the beauty of the distant past – it offered room for make-believe.”

Loss and acceptance

Bhaskar chooses a specific line from Silken’s poem: “These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light” to be her title. A line sandwiched between the idea of ruined love and acceptance. What lies in the heart of the line she chooses? Is the light redemption for her? For her characters?

Amamma never finds her true love, who was taken away from her when she was sixteen. Mamma believes she has found her true love, until he leaves her. Dee’s sister Ranja, married to a man with acclaim and stability, goes insane, her personality scooped out and replaced with dinner plates and domesticity. Her other sister Tasha, who shifts from man to man, finally settles on one and decides to get married, leaving Deeya feeling ominous and unsettled.

Deeya herself is irrevocably in love with an older, inaccessible man. She is married to another, who spends most of his life at sea, while she lives in America all alone with sorrow and loneliness. If Bhaskar sees redemption, or light at all in her story, I think it is in the idea of story-telling itself. That bodies are held together by memories and that memories can be tweaked and tucked into suitable corners as per the body’s desire.

Despite the rotating unhappiness of the characters, the book is a happy one. The kind one could read in a single sitting. No part of it feels overwrought or untidy.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light is a book of women in love. Not with men, not with women, not even with their families. But with the tumultuous relationships they have with themselves. The stories that have brought them up and the stories they construct for their futures. The stories they keep on changing to transform from mere bodies into those that are possessed by light.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, Dharini Bhaskar, Hachette India.