Book Review: Name, Place, Animal, Thing by Daribha Lyndem | Four columns of childhood

An ordinary story towers with elegance, warmth and intelligence

Lewduh market in Shillong, where the book’s protagonist is based Express photo
Lewduh market in Shillong, where the book’s protagonist is based (Express photo)

By Suvanshkriti Singh

Until I began reading it, I didn’t know what had drawn me to Name, Place, Animal, Thing. To me, the title’s capaciousness, its playfulness beckoned Borgesian undertones—perhaps, an emporium of defamiliarised knowledge. But the pleasures of this debut outing, I was to learn, are far simpler in their elegance, and quite categorically universal.

Daribha Lyndem’s book is a compendium of vignettes of girlhood, narrated by D from memory, and one is tempted to classify it as an auto-fictional bildungsroman. Lyndem, however, insists on the novel’s fictionality, even as she admits that the inspiration for the stories comes from her own experiences. The book is all the better for it.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing is framed almost as an ethnographic record of the characters that shaped D—from her landlady’s help and the Chinese restaurant her family could afford only sparingly to the eccentric Hindi teacher and the stuffed toy out of which D makes a totem. The novel’s form and frame, then, allow Lyndem to touch on issues as wide-ranging and ubiquitous as class, racism, xenophobia, sexism, bullying, loss and sexual harassment. One of the aesthetic achievements of the book is that the handling of these issues never feels heavy-handed. In one especially well-executed scene—a school senior has a propensity to pinch D’s ‘bathroom parts’ —the harassment itself, and the exploration of the victim’s psyche become ancillary to the establishment of Bear as D’s lucky charm.

This lightness of touch extends to problems that are less immediately relatable. D’s early experience of Shillong’s political insurgency, for instance, is primarily mediated through the bandhs that allowed her to miss school and cycle on traffic-free roads. The book’s final chapter is similarly touching in its unflinching yet tender narration of the friendship of a lifetime.

Lyndem’s great achievement is the way in which she has inhabited a child’s voice – and gaze. If memory weren’t already a deviously slippery element, its purity is rendered all the more inaccessible by the taint of an adult’s socialised perspective. It takes no insignificant skill to eschew the tomes of digests that teach one how to respond, to react—and crucially, to think—in favour of foregrounding the immediacy of childhood experience. For the most part, Name, Place, Animal, Thing is all verbs, all movement, whether the action happens to, around or within D.

The skilful consistency of Lyndem’s narrative voice—D has an eye and a memory for the sizes of doors, and is especially attentive to caterpillars—lends the moments that collect to form D’s life. D’s world may be located in Shillong, built of cherry blossoms and pine cones, but geography does not mediate the passions, pastimes, and apprehensions of which it consists, whether it be the ritualistic consumption of aloo muri chaat post-tuitions, exchanging prurient literature in the name of sex-ed or agonising over one’s potential for romance.

In her employment of language, however, Lyndem acquits herself more ambivalently. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see the Khasi words incorporated into the text not being italicised or endlessly translated, avoiding the postcolonial insecurity of explaining the margin to the centre. On the other, there are moments rife precisely with such over-explanations of D’s—and Lyndem’s—culture as undercut the security of her authorial position. In terms of craft, trite formulations coexist with vibrant descriptions of houses as colourful graves and mortality as ensnared butterflies. Similarly, her treatment of life in the north-east can sometimes feel wilfully idyllic or romanticised, even as clear-eyed, incisive representations of poverty, natural disasters, and classism offset this nostalgia.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing is not an extraordinary novel—and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways. This is an ordinary story, told with elegance, warmth, and intelligence. The game after which the book is titled is not merely an exercise in taxonomy, but one also in reminiscing.

And, I realised, that it was the title’s invocation of hours spent laughing, playing, and quarrelling over trifles, hours in which my relationship with life and time was much more personal, unmediated by theory, that attracted me to the novel.

My associations with the memory of the game are much the same—in its preoccupation with names and naming, with capturing in four columns the elements of a young girl’s life, what Name, Place, Animal, Thing portrays is the fleeting eternity that is childhood.

Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer

Name, Place, Animal, Thing
Daribha Lyndem
Zubaan Books
Pp 208, Rs 300 (e-book)

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First published on: 14-03-2021 at 03:00 IST