Nirmala Govindarajan’s book Taboo breaks all rules as she enmeshes prose with poetry, long sentences with short, one moment atmospheric, and another moment poignant. There is music, and a multitude of languages spicing up the book… Spanish, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Sinhala…
Taboo is a master class in creative writing. The author has an uncanny ability to infuse rhyme and reason, atmosphere and aggression, chants and cries, in an evocative manner that is truly representative of India’s subjugated population. The result is a medley of genres that blend effortlessly to drive home the point of hope. Sample this: “When the Mountain Men share a secret on the hill, the Kulkulu women hear it in their homes. The secret knows that the best place to snuggle in the cold is the warm womb of a Kulkulu wife.”
Nirmala’s book is a fictional account of minors forced into sex, and the many troubles they go through at the hands of heartless perpetrators, all male. It is not easy to weave a story on a forbidden profession with such finesse. Nirmala could have just as easily made the protagonist’s cry for help an exercise in hopelessness. That she treats the subject of sex trade in a sensitive manner, and yet be playful about the proceedings requires a certain something. That is where the author’s writing and characterization shines. She is just as detached as she is attached to her protagonists; only then can you be breezy in presenting your characters. Every girl in the book is her protagonist – her previous book Hunger’s Daughters was also about the plight of the girl child.
Though the book is largely set in India, it has some foreign influences that make it a truly universal tome that anyone can relate to. Above all, it’s a travelogue of sorts that takes a person from the rural hinterland to the tea gardens of a rich baron to a sprawling metropolis, and beyond the country’s shores (Sri Lanka and hints of Spain and Italy).
More than the story, I fell in love with the various characters, and the documentary style of story-telling. Being a theatre person herself, Nirmala’s writing can easily be adapted for the stage. It has all the characters that can grab the audience’s attention in a 90-minute dramatic showcase.
The characterizations leave you spellbound. The writing is imbued with feeling and a sense of ‘all-knowingness’… where everything happens for a reason. What keeps you engaged with Taboo is her slow and steady way of unraveling the plot. Class divides are portrayed effortlessly, and the naming is funny and revelatory at the same time. Coinages like The Caretaker, Cheap Operating Officer, The Minister for Shelters, Unsuitable Ministers for Suitable Posts, and the Baron of Extreme Excess remind you of Shakespeare who reveled in such naming strategies to showcase the temperament and occupation of the characters.
Naming funnily or matter-of-factly is of course an age-old literary technique and not something the Bard of Avon pioneered, but he definitely made the most memorable use of nomenclature. I can think of Dull, the dim-witted constable in Love’s Labour Lost, Master Smooth, the silkman in Henry IV, and Jane Smile, the milkmaid in As You Like It. And then, there was Master Shallow, the empty-headed judge in The Merry Wives of Windsor or his ambivalent colleague Justice Silence. In much the same manner, Nirmala has Jhoru Kanbi Badshah, Senor Singh Mono, Badtameez Baap, the Royal Ragamuffins, and Shri Sanyasi Solali Snowmountainwala, among others. Each of these characters play their memorable parts and remain in your hippocampus long after the book is read.
In Taboo, the ingenuity of the language is both evocative and a fun read that makes the book a page-turner. Sample this: “The dead never fail to stir munumunuppus”, “Truant are the ways of dallying daylight”, “Floating seamlessly between the whispers of the August winds, I am no citizen of the land I was born in”…
Nirmala has a keen eye for the underprivileged, and how greed and lust affect the country’s downtrodden. Only a person who has lived in such an environment can represent the marginalised so impeccably in the book. This is truly the most stand-out feature of the literary tome. “The third eye is naked,” says Nirmala in the book. So are her characters just as relatable, like the coolies, rickshaw-pullers, ministers, tobacco-growers, bastards, wombs, urchins, rivers, hills, footpaths, asbestos-roofed homes, mansions, pimps, scouts and guides, wives, bodyguards, sanyasis, traders, valleys, factory workers…
The upshot? While reading Nirmala’s book, you will “gurgle with the emotion of love” and also go “restless with emotions gone awry” as “the distant past is now present”. That is indeed the beauty of Taboo. If you were to read this genre-bending novel a hundred years later, you will still find it relevant, the true mark of a classic.
Taboo is a racy read. What makes it pleasing and unconventional is the mix of prose and poetry, and the way the story goes back and forth in time. Nirmala’s words flow like a river, documenting the waves and the undercurrents that define human life along the way. Erendira’s story is a difficult but ethereal journey that you will love for its sheer Indianness rarely seen in contemporary books. But no, I didn’t fall in love with the protagonist. I just respected her. That is indeed the spirit of Taboo. The women in the book don’t need our sympathy. They can take care of themselves. They know what they want and how to get it.
One disclaimer, though. For some people, this book might be hard to read, and even understand. For one, they need to be in a good mood before they start leafing through this book. Beneath the jolly interludes is the harsh expose of a male-dominated Indian society, where young girls are nothing more than flesh to be used and abused by those in power. That’s a shame.