Book: "The Dollmakers' Island"; Author: Anuradha Kumar; Publisher: Gyaana
Books; Pages: 240; Price: Rs 225
In "The Stone Raft", Portuguese author Jose Saramago writes about the Iberian peninsula breaking off from the European continent and going adrift on the Atlantic. The promise of a similar, albeit Indian, setting is what drew me to Anuradha Kumar's novel. Hardly a few pages into the story, "The Dollmakers' Island" turns out to be quite a different kettle of fish with its own quirky charms.
Kumar's novel is layered history, close to the surrealist tradition, delicately spun with the gossamer threads of a Rapunzel like fairy tale romance that spans centuries. The island of dollmakers is not on any map; the British are at pains to fix the island's status but fail. Meanwhile the island's original inhabitants-the elusive dollmakers-have vanished and the new government is wary of their return. Ronen Ghito, the government's man, is doing his best to find out more about the dollmakers but the only person who might have a clue, Leela, has lost her voice.
The mystery of the dollmakers is what drives this story along. Not until Leela decides to communicate will any of their secrets be revealed. But Leela is also waiting for her lover Shyam. Locked up in a tower on the island, is Leela carrying secret messages in her long hair which she lets down as evening falls? This is where the novel is in its fairytale splendour.
Yet it is a twisted fairy tale, scarred by the lashes of time. When Leela begins to tell the story of the dollmakers, in a series of emails, the novel flips back and forth across centuries and we get a carousel-ride of a history of the subcontinent, from Anglo-Russian intrigue and the Great Game right up to Gandhi and beyond. And quite expectedly, from the Mahatma to Ranjit Singh, from stuffy Viceroys to Portuguese adventurers, everyone makes an appearance in this novel, placing the dollmakers at history's poignant stops.
So in mid-19th century Peshawar we find this description of a meeting between the Russian agent Vitkevich and the British agent Alexander Burns. Vitkevich is warning the Englishman about Ranjit Singh as they meet above Kareem Dostum's teashop: "It is Ranjit Singh you should watch out for,' and Vitkevich tapped the name on the wooden hookah frame as he drew in a steady draught of smoke. Burns saw his face and coughed. 'He would not have the time', he started to say, but by now there were others in the room who were coughing too. The smoke, thick and heavy, curled around the low chairs and divans, danced around the flapping salwars of the pathans, snuggled into the loose flowing robes of the monks and the lamas, and rose chest high, forming thick clouds over the open windows."
The chiaroscuoro of this Peshawar scene is one of the high points of the novel as are some of the surreal passages. This is myth-making on a grand scale, historical fiction on amphetamine. Yet what cuts short those epiphanies is an avoidable economy of descriptions that could have been more sinewy and muscular.
What we get, especially in the retelling of the past, is a slideshow of images going a bit too fast while what we would have liked is perhaps a languid pace with more context-building, so that the verisimilitude pact between author and reader remains intact. For even the surreal novel (unless it is fantasy) after a century of realism has to kowtow before the deity of verisimilitude, and as Milan Kundera indicates with the example of Kafka's America, this can be achieved using the door of farce.
This novel, in fact, is very much historical farce, as Kumar has also mentioned somewhere. What makes it challenging though is that it is a puzzle at the same time. A puzzle about history, with all its bluster and hot air, its tragi-comic excesses and pointless melodramas. The reader asks - is the Headman and the Mouldi who live on the island symbolic representations of Hindus and Muslims respectively? How do the stories of missing boats and ladders piece together with the treachery of Mir Jafar or Dalhousie's abduction, for that matter, and who are those people who have always swum against the tide? The Dollmakers' Island is sure to appeal to cultivated minds that enjoy a little puzzle-solving on the side.