Review: So All Is Peace by Vandana Singh-Lal
A tale of tragedy and aberrance that is also a critique of society and urbanismUpdated: Oct 15, 2020, 16:47 IST
What drives sane people to take extreme measures while life ebbs and flows in expected currents around them? Who can fathom from the outside the depth of personal eddies, and what can be that tipping point leading to someone transcending the realms of normal behaviour, leading to a free fall into acute abnormality?
Vandana Sigh-Lal’s riveting debut So All Is Peace, a psycho drama, throws up a dark swirl of questions. The title, borrowed from an Edward Lear verse, is a deliberate misnomer. The story begins on a rattling note, on a night meant for celebration and dazzling festivities. While the world celebrates Diwali, a boy in an upscale Delhi housing complex accidentally opens a can of worms when he knocks on his neighbour’s door. What lies beyond shatters the neatly sculpted bourgeois facades of orderliness and respectability that layer lives in such neighbourhoods. Twin sisters, born five minutes apart, soul mates and mirror images of each other, are found in utterly wretched conditions, starving and malnourished. Nobody in the vicinity has an inkling of what might have happened. The genesis of the novel probably lies in the bizarre real-life incident that took place in a middle-class locality in Delhi, several years ago, where two sisters were found starving and in abject circumstances.
In the novel, the sisters, Tanya and Layla are in their mid-20s, intelligent, and hold the promise of having been beautiful when whole. In their living room hangs the print of a beautiful painting in rich reds and gold, titled The Two Sisters by French painter Chassériau, bought on a long ago trip to Paris with their father. It is a fitting leitmotif.
The media exults in the shock value. Television channels feverishly flash sensational images and run fantastical theories. Everyone is nonplussed: the doctors and psychiatrist treating them, ACP Satya investigating the case, and Raman, the embittered investigative journalist reluctant to do a story on the sisters that’s been assigned to him. It is the latter who is privy to Tanya’s stream of consciousness from her hospital bed, as she gives incoherent tongue to preceding chapters from their lives. Inexplicably, he is drawn to the tarsier-like almost human, once striking woman. It is one of the few jarring notes in the plot.
So All Is Peace has a well-etched storyline. It unspools in real time over a span of six days in October 2014, interspersed with flashback episodes, and is recounted in various voices and inflexions.
While the story takes on the contours of a ‘why’dunit, it splays well beyond that realm. The spotlight is on stark manifestations of urban alienation and social apathy. The facile veneer of a Facebook blatantly shows forever shiny happy updates; Twitter presence is important for relevance and identity so Raman religiously tweets every night, because it is an evil part of his job profile - “in order to keep their jobs, every reporter must send out two tweets every day.” In the non-virtual world, next door neighbours can be utter strangers quietly leading dysfunctional lives. One of the biggest dichotomies of our existence today is how we lead instantaneously connected and voyeuristic lives across multiple personalised screens while remaining disconnected to those with whom we share physical spaces and walls.
Singh-Lal cleverly uses the tale of the two sisters to critique society. Raman’s investigative chats with the security guard duo, uncle and nephew, at the complex where the sisters live, bring to light rampant iniquities within civilised confines, and shows the stranglehold of RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations), an ironic acronym, on the lives of inhabitants. Raman discovers there are notices for every non-male in the complex. Even discrimination has a hierarchy. The guards do not have a washroom and must use the Sulabh Shauchalay across the road; dogs cannot defecate within the premises but can soil the road outside; maids must acquiesce to the wages fixed by the RWA. “Fruits of free market economies obviously do not trickle down”. As for the few young children, “they are not allowed to play in three small patches of green grass in the complex because it will spoil the look of the complex”. And there is a special diktat directed at single women, which is ludicrously titled “Rules for Safe and Virtuous Living in Bellevue Boulevard”, the erstwhile Krishna Colony. “Most of the text has faded in the sun but some of the big words still remain. There is sanctimonious and sanctity in two places. There is upright and dissolute and debauched and moral and moralistic.” And those that do not toe the line obviously face retribution. It is vigilantism taken to an extreme, exemplified by Mr Deol the President of the RWA and smug upholder of puritanical values.
Embedded in the 400-page novel is an essay by Layla titled A City Without Women that damns Delhi, laying bare its flawed social fabric: “Women have begun to disappear from the streets of Delhi.” “The spaces for women have been systematically, methodically truncated. Not by any dictate. That would be too obvious.” “There are no women loitering about on the street corners, no women enjoying the sludge in the ridge greens after an unusually intense Delhi rain, no women relishing the tapestry of aroma in the Old Delhi spice market, no women lying down in the grass to soak in the winter sun in Nehru Park… No woman out on the streets of Delhi just because she feels like it.” It is a hard hitting piece about our discordant realities that references the December 16, 2012 rape case that jolted the nation’s conscience, others that came before and after it, and acts of everyday misogyny. At the core of So All Is Peace is a seething anger about these and other inequities.
Singh-Lal’s idioms pack a punch. Her sentences are rife with smartly constructed subordinate clauses, soaring and swooping down, coming together to create a composite whole. Descriptions of people and situations span pages but no tedium creeps in. There is both intensity and lavishness to the writing.
So All Is Peace goes into dark places and has a visceral appeal. It is philosophical and rich with atmospheric elements. It is an engrossing read.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai