Drowning Fish is all about paradoxes. Quite like the analogy of the broken mirror as a fallible memory in Salman Rushdie's collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands.
"It was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memories acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities," he says in the titular essay.Building upon memories and myths, of finding a home away from home, and of course, the fish that is drowning, is the protagonist Neelanjana Sen. Stringing the narratives of three generations together, the novel starts with Neelanjana inheriting invaluable Victorian furniture from her grandmother Nayantara.
The furniture is all that Nayantara was, once, able to salvage from the Partition as she moves from East Bengal to Calcutta. Sucharita is the second generation that thrusts the narrative in unanticipated directions. The elder sister of Neelanjana's mother, Sucharita is the doting aunt who acts as Neelanjana's friend and confidant. 'Neela-rani'is how she addresses her.
Neelanjana's quest lies in America as she tries to make a career as an English professor and find her identity through an "Erica Jong lifestyle".
The novel sparkles for most parts and is riveting in its evocation of a young student recklessly crossing the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls in freezing winter.
The tempo of the first half is set between Neelanjana's American escapades whose mission is to lose the embarrassing tag of a virgin at 26 and a teenage Neelanjana's journey to Calcutta from Jamshedpur as she packs in a lipstick - a privilege given only in the metropolis.
The world of women - Nayantara, Niharika (Neelanjana's mother), Sucharita, and Neelanjana unravels like intertwined filial banter where one person will pick up from where the other had left, completing each other's memories.
Haunted by the past, characters resurrect an East Bengal with its forgotten water bodies - beel, khaal, haor, and baor, and flora and fauna - "kaash trees, date palms, shimul trees, (and) turtles swimming in the water" yet offsetting it by the devastating potency of the rivers.
Such descriptions give the exile's yearning for home a sense of buoyancy. At one point, the character of the neighbour Debdas Dey or Debu bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent case of Partha De who locked himself up with his sister's and dogs' skeletons for over six months.
Debu is the lonely landlord of Nayantara's house in Calcutta who stalls a teenage Neelanjana with a blank, lecherous stare. His repressed sexuality soon spirals into schizophrenia as he buys Ashtami saris for an imaginary wife; and eventually commits suicide.
After about two-thirds its length, when the family recedes into the background, the narrative loses some of its lucidity. Neelanjana's angst is jaded making the reader trudge through to find out what happens next.
The fundamental balance between show and tell also goes awry as Chanda dramatises events while spoon-feeding the reader with what she ought to feel in places.
The self-conscious labelling of the genre as a 'postcolonial bildungsroman' also breaks the emotional bond set up by the first half. Neelanjana's journey, though marred by these hiccups, is feisty and makes you want to root for her. Her parents Niharika and Shishir Ranjan also evoke sympathy as their daughter distances herself in an unknown land with each passing year.
A humane portrait of a family, Drowning Fish invites you in and re-imagines a place that is now only a symbol.