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Sensory overload

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:18 IST
Shalini Singh
Shalini Singh
Hindustan Times
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Constructed on concepts of guilt, forgiveness, dreams and famillial bonds, this rather colourful debut novel tells the story of young Mia, who being a ‘synaesthete’ has led her life with the ‘acute imagination of an artist’ — till one day she goes missing while on a backpacking trip in India.

Thus begins a mother’s search for her daughter. Through the chaos and help from Taos, a mysterious artist, Alida has to piece together the clues her daughter has left behind to find her in an unknown land.

The first question you may ask is: what’s a synaesthete? Synaesthesia is a sensory condition in which all five senses don’t experience the world separately but as an involuntary combination of these senses. So for example, as the author explains, “the colour green could be experienced by a synaesthete as having a lemon sherbet taste, while in another it might produce a feeling like raindrops hitting the skin.”

Clare Jay also says that most people with this condition wouldn’t wish to be without it. But experiencing Mia’s vulnerable senses through a troubled childhood makes one wonder if thoughts and imagination actually free or bind a person. Or both.

The part where Alida and Taos trade their expressions on the bus — her writing, his photographs — is an interesting exploration of art and honesty. “Writing exposes you,” she said nervously. “If you write so fast that you barely have time to think, your unconscious slips onto the page without you even realising it. Once it’s there, there’s no disguising it...” “Why wouldn’t you want to expose yourself in your writing?’ asked Taos.... “That’s the whole point. To cultivate the kind of honesty which allows your mind to travel wherever it needs to go.”

Given the protagonist’s vivid sensory condition, the novel provides the writer’s imagination a wide canvas to paint on. Intrinsically, it also makes India — in all its “vibrant exotic glory” — a fitting setting. That’s where my disappointment creeps in. The part about ‘Five-toes’, a young Indian woman with a foot missing its toes and the other with well-pedicured ones, doing her yoga on a cliff and telling Alida how India is the land of spiritual solutions is stomping heavily into cliché-land. This is an observant, sensitive first novel. But the aftertaste, of a dish of raw emotions stirred in a masala formula, doesn’t linger long.

Breathing in Colour
: Clare Jay
Price: Rs 295 n pp 280