Review: Acid by Sangeetha Sreenivasan

A complex and compelling tale of unconventional relationships steeped in subverted realities
John Lennon is believed to have drawn ‘Strong’ during an acid trip.(Getty Images)
John Lennon is believed to have drawn ‘Strong’ during an acid trip.(Getty Images)
Updated on Oct 19, 2018 05:14 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySonali Mujumdar
400pp, ₹499; Penguin
400pp, ₹499; Penguin

Acid is a tempestuous and turbulent trip: hallucinogenic and haywire, imbued with a melancholia that is hard to shake off. Originally written in Malayalam, Sangeetha Sreenivasan’s English translation of her own work is masterfully accomplished.

A strange volatility grips the unusual household of same-sex couple, Kamala and Shaly and Kamala’s teenaged twin sons Aadi and Shiva. The women live out their subverted togetherness fuelled by LSD or acid. Kamala’s inner demons are many: a failed forced marriage to a cousin, her sexual orientation and consequent attachment to the young and beautiful Shaly, and her dependence on psychotropic drugs.

Narrated in a non-linear style, the story opens with the news of Kamala’s mother’s death in her native village in Kerala. Kamala’s seeming ambivalence towards this event coupled with her drug-induced delusional stupor presages what lies ahead. “Kamala’s mother, frozen, white and pale, waited for her daughter in uncertainty, while Kamala shut herself up in a room too far away from her mother and mused on something that would never be useful in life.” When she decides that they must pack up their urban Bangalore life and move to her mother’s ancestral home, it creates upheaval and unforeseen mutations in everyone’s lives.

Shiva the smarter, disabled son and his caretaker brother the gentler Aadi grapple with their new found shuttered existence. In their earlier city life, the women and the boys had clearly segregated living areas. “The house had two storeys. Kamala lived with Shaly on the upper floor and the boys lived on the lower floor. The women were free to come down whenever they wanted. But the boys were not allowed on the upper floor.” In the ancestral house, it is Shaly who must keep away from the curious probing eyes of the relatives and stay in a room apart. The stifling existence in the house with nothing to do but live out each day takes its toll. Kamala the strong woman at the beginning of the narrative becomes a pale shadow, sliding into a hellhole of delusional spells, increasingly seeking isolation. The house smells of decline and decay. Befittingly, the closest sign of life is a nearby crematorium, which fascinates and repels all at once.

In a parallel thread on Shaly’s past, the ritualistic dance of life and death plays out in a distant corner in the Northeast, in Mizoram where she has led most of her wild and warped childhood. During a package tour, she and Kamala first stumbled upon each other at the erotically-charged exteriors of a sanctum and become lovers and friends.

Though seemingly the protagonist, the story isn’t Kamala’s alone. It is, at different times, about each of the four main characters: Aadi, Shiva, Shaly and Kamala. The interplay of shifting dynamics between Kamala and Shaly, between Shaly and the two boys, and finally between Kamala and her sons is marked by complexity. Kamala’s journey is in an eternally subaqueous state, floating in and out of real and the imaginary worlds replete with flashbacks, hallucinations, bizarre images.

This is how the story begins: “She lies naked and flat on her back in a lotus pool that surpasses the stillness of Monet’s beloved pools”. She by name is that lotus flower growing in murky waters. The lotus pond imagery is a recurring one: Shiva’s real life encounter with it has left an indelible, debilitating effect on him. Elsewhere, Madhavan, her cousin and ex-husband recalls “the day Kamala had almost drowned in the pool while swimming” and how he had saved her.

Sangeetha Sreenivasan (Courtesy Penguin)
Sangeetha Sreenivasan (Courtesy Penguin)

Alongside the stagnation or the descent into murky depths, ironically, are the journeys, real and metaphorical. Just like his mother had left her home and her mother one day, Aadi sets out. “Now she was really worried about him, the boy who had gone out to learn life -- like her mother who had worried about her. This was the cycle. She was afraid of the world outside, yet she had said: ‘I would like to see the world. I would like to know myself better.’” And Aadi, one half of the Aadi-Shiva duo, learns, and discovers, loses his inhibitions and shackles, moved most by his tryst with the theatre world of Aadishakti. A small section of Acid is his bildungsroman.

Read more: Review: Storywallah by Neelesh Misra’s Mandali

Sreenivasan’s prose is rich and lyrical and alludes to everyone from Moliere and James Joyce to Enigma’s “Return to Innocence”. “It must be at the point where the blue sky merged with the blue sea that the seagull abandoned duality and soared to the heights. His feathers, smooth and white shone in the rays from the sun. She read the story of the magnificent bird, the story of its flight… His name she remembered was Jonathan.” There is no coyness either, “The little holes, the acid designs on the bleach marks in the crotch of her panties, like a beehive, sometimes reminded her of the futility of living biologically. Love has the fragrance of henna flowers, the piquant burning sensation of pepper buds. It makes one wet with happiness and leaves the eyes sore with desperation.” It takes a little time to get under the skin of the story and follow the meanderings, the ebb and flow of the narrative through verisimilitude and alternate realities. The narrative is both fluid and viscous. However, what is tangible is that Sreenivasan is in clear command of her craft. “In the sunlight, two water droplets oscillated on a lotus leaf like two precious pearls that had no roots, no reality. The leaf, on the other hand, was mute, its mouth strapped by long cellophane ribbons of veins, it had no way to support them. Like toddlers taking their first steps, the droplets wobbled on the leaf’s surface for a while, then in unison they flowed towards the centre, to the heart of the leaf, as if going back to the womb: they shone there like a priceless gem.”

Encapsulating ‘Acid’ in a handful of paragraphs does not do justice to Sreenivasan’s work. Complex and compelling, it is a cauldron of corrosive elements simmering together, unsettling, obfuscating and hypnotic.

Sonali Mujumdar writes, speaks French, and enjoys travel. She lives in Mumbai.

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