I see it in the headlines. I hear it during phone calls. I expect it whenever my mother knocks on my bedroom door. I fear it when I ask my friend about her aunt. It is hard to hear about death. But it is even harder to write about it.
Meera Rajagopalan’s The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs Pankajam traverses different kinds of death: the expiration of a marriage, admission of infidelity, and the worst of them all, the gnarly death of someone you love. Rajagopalan plucks these themes as one would pluck curry leaves, to drop them in a pool of oil in anticipation of the sizzle that bursts and burns the skin. Ma tells me the oil stops burning the more you cook, the older you get, and Pankajam’s diary entries assert this claim.
Dying to know
Rajagopalan uses the diary form to narrate the story of a Tamil woman, Pankajam, who is assailed by a failing memory – “I’m no Anne Frank,” she comments while confessing how her doctor advised her to keep a diary for this reason – while negotiating a precarious and not quite mindful journey between her grown-up children’s lives, her own secrets, and her husband’s ever-threatening health. But apart from the details one could procure from a first date, she does not tell you who she is either. Rajagopalan crafts Pankajam’s evasiveness to make an unlikely character out of a grandmother, mother, and wife, who confuses her husband’s name with her brother-in-law’s before correcting the error.
If a reader thinks the fact that each diary entry is dated makes the timeline of the story straightforward, Rajagopalan is here to prove them wrong. Time is her protagonist’s underbelly. The narrative twirls on Pankajam’s command, and her memory twists it. When she is not writing her story, time does. It places her husband Srini’s heart disease around her neck like an albatross.
“I am mostly scared in places like this. New context and new places. It’s like everything has changed or is constantly changing. See, a vacation is a change, but it’s good...”
In the next line the word “death” is struck through – an afterthought that illustrates Pankajam’s hesitance to acknowledge it. She free-writes in her diary, where she can slip, or admit a thing or two. But that alone does not make her the nuanced character she is. Rajagopalan curdles the form with a protagonist who holds back. This unevenness in the expectation readers have from entries is slathered with the smoothness of confessions. Pankajam’s guilty conscience says, “This is Srini’s second attack. Perhaps brought about by me.”
Words and spaces
Rajagopalan weaves language into the fabric of the novel. She retains Tamil words without explanation, stamping a licence of authenticity on Pankajam’s entries. An entry slides into the detachment between the languages that a family speaks when they live apart, only for the diarist to let slip: “Then I ran into the kitchen, leaned on to the island, as they call it, and sobbed.” The novel traverses different cities and countries, and language speaks to this.
The entries are like Hansel and Gretal’s white pebbles, a necessity for Panjakam to return to her home, her solidity. Pankajam’s receding memory flails. A story written in the first person point tells the reader, before the narrator herself does, that she is losing her memory.
“I told him about meeting Ammini.
‘Really? Your best friend Ammini? The one who was washed away?’
I ignored the words he used. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘Wow. What a small world! Seems impossible. Where was she all this while?’
‘I didn’t ask her. Why ask questions you might not want the answers to?’
There was silence. Then slowly a sigh, and then, ‘Of course.’”
Silence is a tactic that Rajagopalan’s characters use charitably. A method of peacekeeping, the ripening agent of a mourning and death of political discourse, silence stitches mouths shut. But Pankajam’s diary is a ripcord. She comments on Tamil politics, and a prospective in-law shouts like the bully who victimises themselves: “Who has given you the right?”.
The gendered dynamic of marriage silences the daughters’ parents, and Pankajam does not say anything in response. Rajagopalan, however, lends a sliver of autonomy to her, for in her diary entry, she notes that the likelihood of the man becoming her in-law, or rather, sammandhi, is “decreasing by the minute”.
Beyond the stereotype
The women in the novel exercise agency in different ways, and it does not mean the same for all of them. One of Pankajam’s two daughters, Viswapriya, makes a list outlining what her mother should look for when finding her a boy. Viswa’s cousin, Prathik, a man, only wants a “nice girl”. This comparison of ironic demands huddles in the diary of a woman who could not go to her own engagement. Her other daughter, Parineeta, is separated, with two children, and has made a choice that her mother takes with appreciable calmness.
“‘What did I do? What did I do?’ he kept repeating slowly.
Pari looked at her father, her hero, his eyes lowered in shame.
‘It wasn’t you, Pa,’ she said softly. ‘This has nothing to do with you.’”
Srini reacts as a reader would expect, but contains his anger in a jar of self-imposed blame. His wife is impassive, but her response to a revelation that her daughter deems that she “always” felt “she knew” is as versatile as the plantain in South Indian dishes.
But Pankajam, despite her annoyance at Viswa’s nitpickiness and Pari’s accusation, does not fit into the caricature of an Indian mother who questions her daughter’s choices. She is an Indian woman who comments, on listening to the Prime Minister’s speech about how women must have toilets at their home, “It would have been great if someone had thought of it thirty years ago, but well, what can you do?”.
Rajagopalan writes against the stereotype and constructs Pankajam and Srini as parents whose responses stem from an unforgiving need to protect. Pankajam does not bow to Srini’s expectations of their daughters, and Srini does not crumble with every transgression. They learn to be accepting, and Rajagopalan asserts this capacity of the Indian parent, an attribute often forgotten in narratives that chart Indian lives.
The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs Pankajam is nothing like its title suggests. Rajagopalan strips an unexpected character bare. She makes Pankajam talk like a parrot, uninhibited. It’s an essential work of fiction for those who write; its characters inspire questions about archetypes, their effect on a generation of stories, and the need to rewrite narratives.
And yes, the end matters.
The Eminently Forgettable Life of Mrs Pankajam, Meera Rajagopalan, Hachette.
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