Book review: Of totalitarianism and obliterating the past

  • Vrinda Nabar, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 21, 2015 12:35 IST
Wonder Woman teaches the guys to behave in the eponymous 1970s American TV series. Manjula Padmanabhan’s novel depicts a radically different world. (ABC PHOTO ARCHIVES/ABC VIA GETTY IMAGES)

The title of Manjula Padmanabhan’s latest novel is eerily identical to Jennifer McMahon’s 2008 bestseller (Island of Lost Girls) but while both novels have disturbing themes about missing girls their trajectories are very different. Padmanabhan’s novel is a sequel to her earlier one Escape, published in 2008, and carries forward some of its basic concerns.

Escape was set in a nameless country whose anonymity gave it a universal identity as a nation with no place for women - or “vermin” as they are referred to. If Escape was about the brutalities inflicted on them and Youngest’s valiant effort to save his young ward/daughter Meiji, its sequel takes us to the “Island” - Padmanabhan’s Laputa, a place of experiment where gender is in flux even though the overwhelming essence remains female. The Island is a place of relative safety for the mutilated women and transsexuals of the world but like all ghettoes it has its own dark secrets, its power hierarchies and its codes.

In the 20 odd fictional years since the events of the first novel, the world has undergone a frightening makeover. Nuclear detonations at the mouth of the Suez Canal have affected the entire world and turned the Red Sea into the Poisoned Sea. The world’s nations have been reborn as the Whole World Union (WWU), a misnomer since they are now divided into four enclaves dominated by a central one called “The Zone”, “a giant arena for a continuous savage and immensely popular cycle of war games.”

The Island of Lost Girls by Manjula Padmanabhan (Hachette India; Rs 550; PP 348)

This futuristic space of ecological, nuclear and hi-tech disaster is inhabited by clones connected to one another by radio implants. They think with one mind and are programmed to view women as inferior: “the first thing they did when they came to power was to force all the men to destroy all the women… The women who resisted were hunted down, dragged into the streets and butchered. Grenades were thrust into their private parts. Their entrails were hung from the trees like garlands. Unborn babies were torn out of their wombs… Any men who resisted were treated in similar ways.”

The clone heading them all is “the General” who has no name, only a title. His mechanised makeup includes abusive sexual lusts and perversions which are described in graphic, sometimes tediously repetitive detail. Youngest has been compelled to change his sexual exterior to satisfy the General’s preferences in order to survive and take Meiji to safety. In this sense, he is equally a victim of gender abuse, forced to play at being what he is not. Ostensibly operating as the General’s chosen one, on a mission to discover and destroy the Island, he is in fact on a mission of his own - to free the girl and reclaim his lost sexual identity. His escape has all the ingredients of a suspenseful cliffhanger though one gets frequently lost in the labyrinth of escape routes and misadventures which not just Youngest but virtually all the characters seem to flail around in. Padmanabhan does not offer simplistic alternatives. The Island is not uncorrupted, and a series of rebellions fester within it. Meiji discovers soon enough that the Island disallows individual freedom, that survival is conditional and that the Island can be a haven only as long as one subscribes to its diktats. Individual acts of choice or dissent are ruthlessly suppressed. If the Island’s Mentors are divided in their conviction of what works best they are united in their desire for control of their wards, prying on them in their private moments, seeing right into their minds, plucking out their memories and restoring them as a kind of reward when rules are obeyed and a girl has “come to the end of her training”. In her first major confrontation with the rules of the game, Meiji has a sudden mental image of herself reinvented to conform to the Island’s needs, a “smooth, clean, bland-faced doll. Ready to follow orders and be resourceful and responsible. All hours of the day, every day of the year, every year of her life, for the rest of eternity.”

After a dramatic denouement the novel ends on a faint note of hope though its ambiguities remain, as perhaps they are meant to. Meiji is reunited with Youngest but he and Aila, the companion he picked up along the way, are offered a form of sanctum only in exchange for “information” about the others, the bad guys and their strategies, anything that would help the Mentors in the conflicts that lie ahead. More and more, the dangers of any one system or group asserting its worldview are real and obtrusive. Recent global events have shown that protectionism has many scary dimensions, and right and wrong only what those in power decree as such. Padmanabhan’s fictionscape is spooky and her narrative is edgy and fast-moving, hurtling through changing zones that are every bit as ideological as they are geographic. This works well in parts, less so in others, occasionally producing a sense of déjà vu.

At the end, one is left battered but not wholly convinced by the multiple nuances embedded in the story. What comes across explicitly is that totalitarianism has its limits, and that wiping out the past (as with the lost girls and their erased memories) cannot obliterate it. Nonetheless, the barbarisms Padmanabhan depicts are real and all-pervasive in the theatre of the absurd that constitutes the world we live in. De-humanising their perpetrators and locating them in a fantasy world, however plausibly crafted, has the very real potential to diminish the horror of the here and now.

Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former Chair of English, Mumbai University.

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