Drowning Fish by Swati Chanda
Reviewed by Divya Dubey
Extent: 328 pp
Price: Rs 399
(Published by Livemint: April 4, 2015: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/LuxYcRtq4Ff82Ycyc5i7qL/Book-review-Drowning-Fish.html )
An essay on diasporic literature by Amit Shankar Saha illustrates that ‘despite peculiarities there is an inherent exilic state in all dislocated lives whether it be voluntary or involuntary migration’. Swati Chanda’s debut novel, Drowning Fish, brings this exilic state to the fore – through the story of Nayantara set in East Pakistan in the 1950s – the time of Independence and mass massacres; and next through the story of her granddaughter, Neelanjana, initially a student of English Literature on a scholarship at a university in the United States, who later takes up employment there as a modern expat teacher at various institutes.
As exiles, experiences of grandmother and granddaughter are completely different. While Nayantara’s exile is forced due to war, that of her granddaughter is self-imposed and welcome.
Amidst a riot-ridden atmosphere Nayantara manages to migrate to Calcutta as a refugee with her two daughters, Sucharita and Niharika, leaving behind her beloved home, Narayanbari in Bangladesh, with her precious teak-wood furniture in it, which is later restored to her. This heavy teakwood Victorian furniture – the massive claw-footed armoire, the spinet, armoires with arabesque doors and intricate carvings – is the legacy Nayantara leaves behind for Neelanjana to claim when she comes of age. Meanwhile, it is left in the custody of Neelanjana’s aunt, Sucharita.
Sucharita takes her job seriously, not only because Neelanjana is her favourite niece whom she looks upon as her own daughter, but also as a form of atonement for her past sins, her failure to protect and speak up for the girl as a vulnerable teenager brazenly molested by Nirmal Bondhu, her husband, under her very nose. Both aunt and niece share a tacit understanding and guard this secret for personal reasons.
As Neelanjana grows up she overcomes her fear and shame watching her aunt and uncle grow old and shrivelled, but her aunt’s sense of guilt and self-loathing keeps growing stronger – so much so that she eventually begins to lose her mind.
On the other hand Neelanjana happily embraces the freedom, especially sexual liberty that life in the United States offers her. As she says to Phil, ‘I’m just exploring myself, being myself. Trying to figure things out for myself….’
She makes friends with two Indian boys, Kedar and Ratnam – the latter who makes the mistake of falling in love with her. Though aware of his feelings for her, Neelanjana finds it impossible to reciprocate his sentiments but they remain good friends.
In fact, at this juncture Neelanjana is not prepared for commitment at all. She is satisfied with her flings with Alex, Phil, Dakota and later even Tim, her student, before she receives a rude shock that changes the course of her life on foreign soil.
Ratnam, whom she had snubbed earlier as a lover now reenters her life, though it is out of necessity rather than choice and he knows it. Yet he makes the compromise willingly – and, eventually, pays for it.
Neelanjana does not share the diasporic angst of Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters. Throughout the novel her role vis-à-vis her ancestors and the history of Partition is that of an outsider-observer. She hears the narratives of exile from her parents and relatives, especially her aunt, Sucharita, but she herself has never been and can never be an integral part of that world. Even Jamshedpur, where she spent her life after her grandmother moved to Calcutta, loses its charm for her following her migration to the US.
As Neelanjana becomes accustomed to her adopted country, every visit to India makes her feel more foreign. Finally, while waiting for her flight back to the US on such a visit she understands that she is ready to break away from her past – the stories about the Gangetic plains and the lush green East Bengal, the delta, the alluvial islands and all the geographical and natural delights, apart from tales of border crossings between different cities and refugee camps with their indigence and privation:
Neelanjana no longer wanted any part of it. She was going to free herself from her family’s narratives, the burden of their history. The tragedies of Partition. The trauma of exile. The loss of home The betrayals of family. The nostalgia for desh, her land. When she came here next, she would be sure about which was ‘home’ for her and which ‘back home’.
By this time Neelanjana also realizes that the ‘idyll of rural East Bengal’ she grew up with had been erected from a position of privilege.
However, it is only after the incident with Tim and Ratnam’s reentry into her own life that she grasps the meaning of ‘drowning fish’ her father had mentioned to her – fish that cannot breathe, that suffocate and drown if there is a depletion in the oxygen level of the surrounding water, if the environment becomes too poisonous for them.
Neelanjana, though, emerges a survivor. Like Gone With the Wind’s Scarlet O’Hara, for Neelanjana too tomorrow is another day.
At times the novel tends to be too repetitive and overuse of the past perfect tense can hinder reading, but these ‘defects’ are rather minor given the merits of the story.