ILL­NESS AS AMETAPHOR

Supriya Dravid’s first novel goes deeper into the re­cesses of a fam­ily’s se­crets

India Today - - LEISURE - By Su­mana Roy

The be­gin­ning of In­quiry is Disease,’ wrote Thomas Car­lyle, that ‘ had Adam re­mained in Par­adise, there would have been no Anatomy and no Me­ta­physics’. Read­ing Supriya Dravid’s Cool, Dark Place, I was tempted to cus­tomise Car­lyle— the be­gin­ning of this de­but novel is disease; had Adam re­mained in Par­adise, there would have been no fam­ily, and there­fore no fam­ily dis­or­ders. For that is where this novel comes from.

In the times we live in, where in­di­vid­u­al­ism is a ver­sion of OCD ( ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der), fam­i­lies of­ten re­sem­ble sore wounds. The very idea of the fam­ily, in­di­vid­u­als glued to­gether by blood and sticky cir­cum­stances, seems so like an un­der­ground op­er­a­tion that one is tempted to go un­der cover from time to time, only to re­turn tem­po­rar­ily, like Rip Van Win­kle, to re­joice in fa­mil­ial to­geth­er­ness. It is this sense of the fam­ily as a site of both disease and con­va­les­cence that one rel­ishes in Supriya Dravid’s novel.

The nar­ra­tor of A Cool, Dark Place re­turns to her mother’s house in Madras, this af­ter two seis­mic shocks in the fam­ily’s ner­vous sys­tem— the sui­cide of her fa­ther, and the dis­cov­ery that this man wasn’t her ‘ real’ fa­ther af­ter all. What fol­lows is a rich de­scrip­tion of her life and her grand­fa­ther’s, the equiv­a­lent of life as hos­pi­tal. ‘ Disease,’ writes Anne Hun­saker Hawkins in Re­con­struct­ing Ill­ness: Stud­ies in Pathog­ra­phy, ‘ is most com­monly per­ceived as ex­oge­nous, as alien, as lack­ing any or­ganic re­la­tion to the per­son who is ill: thus cer­tain ill­nesses... are char­ac­terised by treat­ment modal­i­ties aimed pri­mar­ily at at­tack­ing the disease, not treat­ing the in­di­vid­ual whose body is af­fected by the disease.’

In A Cool, Dark Place we meet the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, in­ter­est­ing be­cause they are ‘ dis­eased’, fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause of their way­ward­ness, ill be­cause we con­sider our­selves to be in per­fect health. Dravid’s in­ge­nu­ity lies in turn­ing ev­ery turn of plot, ev­ery sen­tence

Aand its con­stituent metaphors into things of won­der, like dis­eased cells look un­der a mi­cro­scope. It is that de­fa­mil­iari­sa­tion that drives the nar­ra­tive for­ward, like a virus that pulls you to the chemist’s. So what mat­ters in this novel is not the Aris­totelian plot with its be­gin­ning, mid­dle and end, but its con­sump­tive mid­dle, its dex­ter­ous swing­ing be­tween near- theend and the- end- is- near.

Here is a sam­pling of the novel as pathog­ra­phy: The fa­ther lives in a ‘ Prozac par­adise’; when the mother dis­closes the se­cret about the fa­ther, the nar­ra­tor re­alises that it’s ‘ Val­ium talk­ing’; that con­fes­sion leaves the nar­ra­tor in a state of ‘ brain death’—‘ I don’t know what I was do­ing be­sides ran­sack­ing my lo­cal phar­macy’. She is scared of over­dos­ing on a three- course meal of com­plic­ity, caf­feine and co­caine’; and she looks for a cure— ‘ Maybe writ­ing was my methadone’; her grand­fa­ther’s walls are ‘ a pa­rade of the owner’s ob­ses­sive ad­dic­tion for the ab­surd’. San­cho treats ‘ moth­er­hood as some va­pid vagi­nal ac­ci­dent’; Don’s ‘ lu­natic out­bursts’ and his ‘ ob­ses­sive de­sire to pre­serve ev­ery­thing’, the lat­ter de­tailed in Dravid’s mu­se­u­mart prose, make him a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter, a bit like a lion be­ing moved from the for­est to a zoo. The mother hates peo­ple; ‘ she sensed their ar­rival like a hawk, as though they were car­ri­ers of the bubonic plague’. The fa­ther is ‘ an un­suc­cess­ful sui­cidist’; the nar­ra­tor keeps get­ting ‘ hor­rific panic at­tacks’; the mother is ‘ af­flicted with quadriple­gia, where the pa­tient loses sen­sa­tion and con­trol’, be­fore which her ‘ lust for her tu­tor was fes­ter­ing like a boil’. And here is the nar­ra­tor again—‘ All I wanted to do was co­coon my­self in a semi­co­matose state.’ This is how it is, in this ‘ para­noid an­droid’ world, in this cool, dark place where life is surgery with­out anaes­the­sia. ‘ There is a plea­sure in po­etic pains’, ob­served Wordsworth. Read­ing Dravid, I’m tempted to ask— Who’d want to be cured if life is such a de­li­cious disease?

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