On a damp June afternoon, Jayaprakash is called to a shelter for the homeless to identify a woman everybody thinks is his missing wife. Deepti had vanished from a train 10 years ago and hadn’t been seen ever since. Deepti’s family and friends are sure it is her, but Jayaprakash, who is blind, doesn’t think so. A blind man’s search for his missing wife is at the centre of KR Meera’s 2008 Malayalam novel Nethronmeelanam, now published in English as The Unseeing Idol of Light. Prakash, as everyone calls him, lost his sight after the disappearance of Deepti. In his journey, he is always accompanied by his childhood friend Shyam. The news of Deepti’s disappearance had arrived on Shyam’s wedding day. The wedding was called off and Shyam didn’t think of marriage any more. Another person desperately looking for Deepti is Rajani—a librarian at a school for the blind—who Prakash wants to marry.
There are many more characters who shape the novel like objects inside a kaleidoscope, like Prakash’s father, a judge who kills himself. Everybody has a story to tell, but it is Prakash who can see more than the others as to what is unfolding. And what is unfolding isn’t pretty. There is a sense of overwhelming violence suffered by women visible inside the pages of the novel. At one point, Shyam counts he has been inside different morgues about 250 times to identify unclaimed bodies of women during their search for Deepti. If the author put the suffering of thousands of women in Vrindavan, discarded by fathers, lovers and husbands, in her previous novel The Poison of Love (Meerasadhu in Malayalam), published in English last year, she goes further in her new book. In the author’s note, Meera says the novel took shape in her mind when her favourite school teacher said how his sight got erratic on the day his wife died. “Thus he opened my eyes to searching for the meaning of sight and eventually its equations to gender and justice,” she writes.
The author’s narrative strength in weaving stories of gender and justice exposes many faultlines in a society celebrated for its peace and harmony. Kerala, fondly called God’s Own Country, is the toast of development economists for its high social indicators like literacy and health. But behind the compelling statistics lies a deep-rooted tendency towards violence against women, something not talked about in talks and seminars. Recently, state capital Thiruvananthapuram was rocked by the discovery of the beheaded body of a foreign national hanging upside down from a tree. The woman, on a visit to the state for Ayurveda treatment, had gone missing a month ago while visiting the famous beach in Kovalam. Her partner and sister, who had accompanied her to Kerala, had appealed for help in finding her, a call echoed on social media.
Meera’s novel, originally written in Malayalam a decade ago, couldn’t have been more relevant than today. Young women, men and civil society organisations are slowly coming out against the silent suffering of women, both within homes and outside. While Meera’s novel is yet another addition to her brilliant body of work and Indian literature, it is to be read within the contours of the perplexing realities of contemporary Kerala society. There are many who can’t see the violence within their own society, but, as Prakash proves, even the blind have the power to see what is going on around them. Meera’s novel underlines that writers and artists can make sense of the travails of their societies and point to their resolutions.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer