Review: Slices of the Moon Swept by the Wind by Surendranath S

Published on Aug 27, 2022 12:06 AM IST

A novella where the narrator is held captive by his ailing health, stunted growth, disfigured appearance and his family’s rigorous protection

Of suffocation and claustrophobia: The Prison Courtyard (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Of suffocation and claustrophobia: The Prison Courtyard (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)
ByAishwarya Gupta

Much of Surendranath’s novella plays out as a stage limited by its location – by no fault of the author’s imagination of course, but due to the narrator’s personal impediments. As a small boy perpetually perched behind the window curtains, the narrator is held captive by his ailing health, stunted growth and disfigured appearance but mostly by his family’s rigorous protection. Beyond the mise-en-scène of this two-room home on a rather uneventful street, the book is flooded with the miseries of the eight family members – some resigned to their fate while others attempt to escape the ominousness that engulfs their household. But there is only one who sits by the window and watches it all unfold. He is unaware of what it is that he suffers from or how long he has left to live. He knows as much as we do -- that he gets blinding headaches frequently and that his father throws a cover over his head while taking him for doctor’s visits in the day but much prefers to take him after the town falls asleep. After each visit, though, the father is inconsolable. Shame, care, pity, pride, remorse and relief wash over these characters as they struggle for appropriate emotions in the presence of the child.

138pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger
138pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger

While some like the patriarch of the house have seemingly abandoned faith, others like the narrator’s mother and sisters are comforted by their trust in divine providence. Their conduct in reverence to the Almighty speaks just as much about their relationship to each other, for it is performed out of duty and not love. The slim book is loaded with dramatic chiaroscuro – a dingy kitchen where sunlight never reaches and a washing slab in the moonlit backyard where the family members go to escape each other.

By employing the medium of a child’s diary, the author neatly lays bare the dysfunctionality plaguing the family. This will find a heavy resonance amongst most Indian readers. It serves the author well to have a child narrate what he sees and not give embellished socio-cultural commentary about the repetitive themes of a typical Indian middle class household – the crushing anxiety of a father’s outburst, the family’s declining fortunes, the severing of ties with an eloped member, the weight of the unwed daughters, the fate of the son, and the existence of an eternally-suffering mother. As the wind slowly sweeps at the moon, the precocious boy emerges as the only ‘normal’ person in his family.

The child’s parents are conflicted about whether he is a curse, a blessing or a misfortune. Catching him stare at his younger sister, the boy’s mother tells him to look away. She regrets it instantly, crying and hugging the boy as she repents for having thought that he would cast an evil eye on his infant sister. Surendranath masterfully paints such everyday scenes. The author also attempts to align the reader’s prejudice with that of the mocking voices from the street by not describing the young boy’s appearance or affliction. The child himself challenges the reader by saying, “It’s for you to imagine any which way you want to. Whatever your imagination is, I look worse than that.” He carefully observes and measures responses to his appearance.

Author Surendranath S (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Surendranath S (Courtesy the publisher)

The book’s illustrations lend it an intimate character that feels like an extension of the child’s words. The cover illustration of the caged feeding the free encapsulates the few vicarious joys of the ailing boy who never sets foot outside his house. The act of holding out rice kernels on his palm is an invitation to the birds who don’t flinch at the sight of his disfigured appearance or smile as an afterthought. In these moments alone, the grimness around him drowns in his fistful of happiness.

Surendranath S reveals that he has been greatly influenced by the renowned Kannada short story writer Raghavendra N Khasanisa’s work Tabbaligalu (Orphans). The tragic lives of the estranged members of a family in Tabbaligalu are mimicked in his own novel. “These are families that are castaway, live eternally facing tragedies,” he says. Slices of the Moon Swept by the Wind is a succinct representation of the claustrophobia and inevitable decay of familial ties bound too tightly by caste, class, religion, gender and tradition.

Aishwarya Gupta is a lawyer and an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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