Muffled musings: An empathetic and poignant narrative of domestic abuse faced by women

The musings of a dying person can simultaneously be mundane, magical and mysterious.

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The musings of a dying person can simultaneously be mundane, magical and mysterious. It’s a narrative that often arrives through a soliloquy, a reminiscence that navigates across spatial and temporal zones and enables deep reflections. Greece-based writer Ranbir Sidhu’s latest novel Dark Star has an old Sikh woman venturing into a monologue as she nears her death, vividly recording the melancholy of a lonely woman, all the injustices she faced and all the compromises she had to make by virtue of being a woman. The novel is marked by long sentences, an emotion or an incident collapsing onto the other, a stream traversing a long journey through mountains before merging into the ocean. The tone is empathetic and poignant, the form is apt, executed in polished prose.

Born before Partition across the border, the old woman lived in England and the US before she came with her husband to his old home in Punjab and is now facing a slow death.

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Among the prime themes is the ill-treatment she faced by her husband. She worked in California for years but was not allowed to have friends because her husband decreed that “a woman has no friends outside of work”, and “a woman knows only her family”. She has an acute awareness that most men are weak and hence, to quench their ego, they want to exercise their “fingernail’s worth” power over their wives. Such men lose their vitality and power with age, but she was taught by her mother that women must “make sure men never lose their power”.

She doesn’t yell at him, never loses temper, quietly recollects, retrieves, records and re-fashions her past, which is revealed in dark, bleak undertones. Her voice reflects hopelessness, but never bitterness. She records the injustice women face without her voice turning acidic. A dispassionate detachment makes her account all the more disturbing. At times you want her to scream, an act she might not have been able to do in her youth, but now, with her husband enfeebled, she can vent out. But she doesn’t.

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Singh complements his restrained narrative with persuasive musings. The dying woman wonders that if humans grow old and their complexion can change, the colour of water may also change with time. She recalls a water body she had seen decades ago, and whose colour was not blue. Had she taken its photograph, she could have established that the colour of water wasn’t always blue. But then photographs also fade and lose texture and lustre with years. One is thus required to take a new photograph of the previous one every year, and accumulate several facsimile images over the years of the same spot of water.

Besides the memories of the Partition, the first cataclysmic event in her life, the novel also has strong references to the Khalistan movement. In a stunning admission, the old woman not only refuses to lend any importance to Indira Gandhi, she proudly asserts: “We killed her.” She underlines that she did not mourn the death of the Indian prime minister because “I thought a woman who is also a killer is dead”, and that “if I was a man I would have killed her myself”. The sentiment may invite sharp reactions in an oped piece, may even be termed seditious in an adverse political climate, but one must suspend moral judgments in the realm of the novel and clinically examine the contrarian propositions.

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But some instances also appear incongruous. In a novel of mostly abstract reflections of nameless people, references to the farmers’ movement over the agrarian laws, and a discourse about the meaning of anti-national seem to be a futile and hollow insertion. A novel need not indulge in any contemporary incidents to meet its alleged political pledge, especially when it had already fulfilled its narrative promise.

Dark Star

Ranbir Sidhu


Pp 152, Rs 499

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a writer and journalist

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First published on: 02-04-2023 at 02:00 IST
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