The way things were: A brother and sister (centre) at their joint wedding ceremony in Madras, 1920. Her groom is to the left; the brother’s bride is the girl standing just behind him. (Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images)
The way things were: A brother and sister (centre) at their joint wedding ceremony in Madras, 1920. Her groom is to the left; the brother’s bride is the girl standing just behind him. (Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Review: What We Know About Her by Krupa Ge

In chronicling the struggles of her protagonist’s grandparents and grand aunt, Ge shows that individualism is a generational fight
By Percy Bharucha
PUBLISHED ON MAY 28, 2021 08:44 PM IST
204pp, ₹499; Westland
204pp, ₹499; Westland

When it comes to capturing reality, there are no borders. Reality abhors lines. There are only shades that transition between elements. What Krupa Ge has achieved in her debut novel What We Know About Her is a depiction of reality without boundaries. There are only transitions in the form of prose. The novel defies classification; it has no lines. Yet, if you were to ask what the book is about the unequivocal answer would be, “women”. The novel is a tender depiction of Indian women and their agency. As the protagonist Yamuna comes of age, she must find her place in the world. This is contingent on an exploration of her family’s past, especially its women and their unwilling secrets that form an integral part of who she is.

The novel begins with a train journey. Armed with a love letter written by her grandmother, Yamuna travels to meet her grandfather to stake her claim to her ancestral home against her mother’s. From there on, Ge leaves behind all boundaries as she weaves between the past and the present, between character vignettes and the sights and smells of a home. She flits between the sights of a city and a culture’s treatment of their women, using music and letters to drive her point home. Particularly unsettling is the part where Mrs Alamelu talks about her childhood and of how the women ganged up with the old widows to curse young girls during their periods. As a result, for three months Mrs Alamelu told no one that she had started her period. She took delight in her revenge, coming and going as she pleased, touching everyone and taking part in all the festivities. That is until she is caught by her father who promptly arranges her marriage at the age of 14. Despite being battered by abusive husbands, mothers-in-law, and the vicious breeding organism that is the joint family, Ge’s women are full of love and tenderness. In a letter to Alamelu akka, Yamuna’s grand-aunt Lalitha writes, “I think women must offer their love to anyone being tormented by evil Hitlers. We know torment. When were we free? Not in our grandmother’s time nor her grandmother’s...Women have woven sarees, written poems of love and separation as wars raged between kingdoms.”

Author Krupa Ge (Courtesy Westland)
Author Krupa Ge (Courtesy Westland)

As Yamuna navigates her PhD on early twentieth-century music in Tamil Nadu, she unravels the secrets that marred the life of her grandaunt Lalitha who rose to prominence as a Carnatic musician. Thwarted by unwilling elders Yamuna soon discovers that courage and rebellion are genetic streaks that she has inherited. In chronicling the struggles of her grandparents and her grand aunt against the stranglehold of the past, Ge’s protagonist proves that individualism is a generational fight. When her grand-aunt Lalitha tells her grandmother about her husband’s infidelity they discuss how parents do not interfere in the lives of men the way they do for women. Despite being abused by her husband Lalitha is told off by an aunt when she escapes to her parent’s house, she is told she should have stayed and fixed the problem. It is when Lalitha travels to Madras to live with her sister and her husband that Ge gives us this picture of a happy household one with many women and one man, “The sort of house that made little girls happy and did not choke them into feeling inadequate.”

Despite these serious themes What We Know About Her is filled with a surprising amount of levity. Ge has the ability to suffuse her prose and characters with dark humour. Early on, when Yamuna questions her grandfather about Lalitha’s marriage he says all he ever remembers are the meals. Given the many mouths they had to feed, they were constantly busy making food and eating. In another part of the book, Lalitha corrects herself mid-word when she says they were “traveling to Allaha--, ahem, Prayagraj.” Another poignant scene has her grandfather singing Kalyanam, a song about getting married, when Yamuna sets up a coffee date with his friend’s grandnephew. There is an infectious joy in Ge’s prose especially when she writes about seeing a city anew through a lover’s eyes. When her boyfriend wakes up Yamuna at 5.35 am to see the sunrise, she remarks only to the reader, “Who goes to see the sunrise in Madras?” The only letdown is, perhaps, the few questions that Ge leaves unanswered at the end. Ge has a firm grasp of the epistolary format and the letters written by Yamuna’s grandmother are a potent force within the novel. I once believed that all it took to shake up our world was a well-written book, Krupa Ge has shown that it only takes a letter.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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