ILLNESS AS AMETAPHOR
Supriya Dravid’s first novel goes deeper into the recesses of a family’s secrets
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?