Author: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

(Arunava Sinha, translator)

Publisher: Tilted Axis Press, 2017

ISBN:  9781911284116 (PB)

This provocatively titled novel remains provocative to the end, so I would suggest to curious book lovers that they abandon all notions about narrators, mothers, children, India, and Indian authors – for starters. First published in Bengali in 2013, ABANDON is considered a huge literary achievement but, note well, it might not satisfy readers reluctant to be led into uncomfortable territory. We seem to be in an era of taking comfort in books, especially in favorite series. We don’t just choose the books we read, we read at our own pace; it is a matter of time, of priorities. If we don’t like what we are reading, we put the book aside. I happen to belong to a book club of six women willing to give just about anything a try, with no obligations. Recently, we assigned ourselves the anti-globalist Delhi writer, Arundhati Roy. When I took up ABANDON, I had just acquainted myself with two of Roy’s novels and two political tracts. I also read Karan Mahajan’s 2008 novel, Family Planning, set in New Delhi, which also calls into question developments in modern India that have created a clash of values. The India Bandyopadhyay shows us is barely sketched into the background of a deeply personal storm provoked by a woman’s desire to place her creative life at the center of her existence, leaving her child behind.

ABANDON could have been set anywhere there is a marginal economy for artists, and especially women, who so often have to make a choice between art and family. As often as I have seen this theme, I don’t recall another writer who had the confidence to set the central character in what she calls a mirror reflection, including her as both narrator and actor in the drama, while simultaneously discussing the fiction in progress in teasing theatrical “asides” to the reader. It’s quite a performance.

Ishwari (meaning “divine mother”), is a writer who gave birth to Roo (“tree spirit”), a child she did not want. She has abandoned him, but at age five he has followed her. She repeatedly attempts to shake off responsibility for his care, and yet cannot forget him or forgive herself for wanting to be free. When he becomes ill, and she has run out of money, she leaves him in the care of a babysitter so she can work as a companion to a convalescing, selfish lout named Bibiswan in a privileged household. Now we see the widening gap between materialism and art in her changing society, and the splaying of her psyche. Ishwari is fascinated by the life suggested by the lavishly appointed Radheshyam House, but becomes aware that every single person around her on this tiring journey is selfish and self-absorbed, even as she beats down her growing love for her child and others who are sometimes kind, and as the reader grapples with the selfishness and self-absorption of this mother, as well as her anguish.

If this sounds off-putting, keep an open mind. It’s only difficult. Other reviewers (e.g., enricocioni on Goodreads, or strangebedfellowsblog.wordpress) have done a much better job than I can of making a case for Bandyopadhyay’s unique, literary accomplishments. I just simply believe it is the kind of book we must read. That is what the publishers thought too, I gather, as London’s non-profit Tilted Axis is dedicated to bringing edgy and unfamiliar experiences “from the margins” to English-speaking readers. For our own good.

Still, ABANDON has some humor. I thought some characters in the first part might have been lifted from William Saroyan, an Armenian American writing in the 1940s, and added a sort of joie de vivre even as this sad woman landed at Howrah Station with no friends or material resources. The rooftop setting is cleverly articulated for loneliness, but also for fun and games. Ishwari’s rich employer’s paid friendships with pop stars and pseudo-spiritual guides evokes a now laughable memory of 1960s California. This author uses these moments well, but her questions go much, much deeper than any culture. They may come to the surface in some cultures more than others, but art versus life, I versus we, is a universal but wholly individual struggle.