A disturbing narrative of a romance that struggles to survive within the confines of a relationship.
If the novel is to be summed up in one line, it might as well be ‘a stormy romance between two spectacularly strong women’. The 300-odd pages of Acid present the story of two lovers who carry immense burden, each battling her own demons, while struggling to cope with the demands of their complicated relationship in a society that has still not come to terms with homosexuality.
At the heart of the novel are the protagonists Kamala and Shaly whose psychedelic love blooms in Bengaluru. But there is a whole bunch of relationships that pull them from the fringes—Kamala’s husband Madhavan, Shaly’s mother Rita Mama who never wanted to adopt her, Kamala’s domestic help Jaanu who is a mute spectator in a forlorn house in a small village in Kerala, and James the parish from Aizawl who shapes Shaly’s destiny. The book opens with the lovers having a tiff when Kamala’s mother dies. She has to return to her ancestral home in Kerala and henceforth life as they knew it changes. Kamala gets dragged into a whirlpool of depression from where the only escape seems not struggling to live in the past.
It’s a complex story that cleverly shapes a whole cast of characters, but at the core of the novel are Kamala’s twin boys—Aadi and Shiva—the reason for her to pull herself back from her self-induced trance. The title of the book has its own significance. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), also known as ‘acid’, is the hallucinogenic drug that Kamala is dependent on for survival, one that leaves her with altered thoughts, feelings and little awareness of her surroundings. In the metaphoric realm, acid should kill parasites, and both protagonists strive hard for it to be that way.
Acid is a powerful read, with great emphasis laid on describing in detail the emotional toll that relationships take on human life. The prose is beautiful, the writing magical, and for the novice reader outside of Kerala, it depicts a world of unspoilt charm and poetry. It’s not so much of a story about lesbian relationships as it is about finding love and being the object of affection for someone—and how a mother’s love rises above all trauma. It’s a love that is brooding, selfish, demanding and yet honest in all its forms.
What makes the book a promising debut in English is that it isn’t shy of the subject it tackles. The novel, which was first published in 2016 in Malayalam and won the Thoppil Ravi Literary Award (a prestigious state award), explores the world of drugs, lesbian lovers and urban life with a microscopic lens. It has been translated into English by author Sangeetha Sreenivasan herself, who, besides being a scriptwriter, is emerging as one of the most promising young literary voices from the state. Self-translation seems to have worked in the book’s favour, as the seasoned storyteller is able to keep the characteristic charm of the regional language and its ethos intact. Those who are well-versed in Malayalam and the cultural practices of Kerala would know that very little has been lost in translation.