Ashok Srinivasan’s short story collection, Book of Common Signs, won The Hindu Prize 2014. It was also long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. So expectations from his debut novel, Once Upon a Time, were quite high. The protagonist, Brinda Murty’s story is ostensibly modelled on the story of the crucifixion of Christ, though parallels within the novel are almost non-existent when it comes to Christ’s back story. As a concept, it sounds intriguing and full of possibilities. However, the author fails to portray a three-dimensional character that the reader can root for. Problems with the novel begin early on. The novel neither falls into the category of those by Devdutt Pattanaik or Ashok Banker, nor those by the likes of Saramago. Elsewhere Srinivasan has been compared with authors such as Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Haruki Murakami, but this book does not recall their work.
‘Once upon a time, long, long, ago in a land far, far away there lived a doll called Brinda … that is how all my father’s bedtime stories to me invariably began,’ says Brinda Murty in the opening lines of the book, as a first-person narrator. However, as she progresses, the words turn into an insipid documentary delivered in a detached, clinical voice. Brinda never manages to establish an emotional connect with the reader.
She is the daughter in an affluent family in Tamil Nadu and has superpowers of which she is unaware. For instance, she can clearly recall places and incidents that happened much before she was born, including her elder sister Sarla’s death. This thread would have drawn the reader into the tale instantly had it been developed well. Unfortunately, that does not happen. The reader keeps waiting but this strand is lost amongst the various other unwarranted digressions in the narrative.
At some point, Brinda’s family moves to her great-grandfather’s home in Bangalore. ‘Star Home’ is a kind of boarding house for other relatives, storytellers, artists and even strangers and foreigners. New characters are constantly introduced – some directly, others randomly, but none of them ever finds a voice – whether it is her actor-father, her painter-mother, her poet-brother, Janak, or her lover, Gautam, later in the book. They are all more or less mute cardboard characters. On the few occasions when they do speak, their language is stilted, contrived and hinged on clichés. For example, as children, when Janak shakes his sister off because he cannot ‘stand being touched’ and she asks him how he would ever have children, his response is: ‘The married life is not for me; nor the sweet corruption of saintliness. As you can see, I am drunk as a skunk. What I want is the sodden life of an evil-minded hermit. End of story.’
The most important events in the books are arbitrary and no convincing cause-and-effect relationships are established. Brinda’s father moves away from the family, but we never know why. The mother lives in her own world, but we do not know why. Brinda finds she possesses strange healing skills, but she never wonders why. Nor does anyone else. Her brother takes to drinking and ends up in an asylum. Again, one never finds out why. She never manages to form a bond with her lover. The reader fails to understand why. She is taken prisoner by the state for her special powers. Once again the reader fails to understand why. The end is the most bizarre of all.
When Brinda moves to college in Bombay, she is swallowed up by a completely different culture until unimaginable horrors descend upon her. The reader is left struggling to make sense of cause and effect, seeking answers to the question why, which never ever emerge convincingly. Even after suffering rape and molestation her voice and tone remain neutral: ‘The next man turned me on my stomach and raised my hips and took me from behind […] This went on until old Mucosa or his double was into me when from sheer exhaustion I must have blacked out.’
Barely a paragraph later, it is life as usual for her: ‘One Sunday, just as I was returning from home from a shopping spree [italics mine] one of the urchins playing hopscotch on the street […] handed me a grimy, unsealed envelope….’
How can you expect the reader to take such a protagonist or her morbid experiences seriously? A woman, who has been through such devastating experiences, would have a sea of emotions within her that must be communicated to the reader. This major fault shows a lack of sensitivity, an inability to enter the mind of a woman scarred by the most horrendous experiences. Every action, every event, every diversion from beginning to end is arbitrary.
This is a novel that offers little and demands too much.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal and the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle.