For the longest time now, I have found it impossible to pray. Except for the ranting I’ve done here and here, I have found it impossible to connect to something as abstract and apparently holy as God. Having imaginary conversations with people and things is something I have always excelled at but been hesitant to proclaim to anyone except family. Oh and on a Facebook quiz I had taken to check how mad I was on one occasion. I didn’t agree with the result.
The only thing that maybe better than living in your parallel universe is to read a book and immerse yourself in interesting plots and the lives and worries of well-crafted characters.
So when I read The Prayer Room by Shanthi Sekharan, I was extremely reassured and entertained. Viji the protagonist seeks consolation and answers in her prayer room. She even solves family mysteries with the help of portraits of dead people who speak to her in her prayer room and lead her in the right direction. That’s not to say it is like The Sixth Sense.
In this novel that spans across three places – India, England, America – what we are dealing with is relationships and the nature of family. What makes it different from say A Tale of Two Cities is that all the revolution happens within the mind. How does an Indian woman married to an Englishman – George Armitage – make sense of her marriage, her triplets, and a father-in-law who is quite the ladies man? She does that by delving into her own past and connecting with dead people who used to matter to her. There is enough complexity in Viji’s relationships to make it all credible.
Don’t get fooled by the title. There is nothing religious about the book. What it is, is a journey that effortlessly traverses Madras (In 1974 they were still calling it Madras) Nottingham and Sacramento. It’s the story of someone displaced. It is also the tale of someone who can count two very distinct and different landscapes as home. That is what it questions – what do we mean when we say someplace is home? Any and every Indian author or author of Indian origin is tackling the subject of the immigrant experience. Shanthi makes it fun because of the way she writes.
It’s a curious relationship – the one between George and Viji. They are forcibly married, live together and move countries as husband and wife but they don’t love each other. They settle into easy domesticity with the birth of the triplets until Viji decides she wants out. At least she wants out till she finds out who she really is. How do our relationships and our sexuality define us and our sense of belonging to a place? What do we do when faced with temptations and an easy way out? Who am I? What do my decisions and choices mean? Eternal themes are discussed with a trace of irony and humour. There is no judgment. There is no drama in the awakening. Which, for an inherent drama queen like me was a bit of a disappointment. Most of the motives aren’t clearly explained – what makes Viji live with George for as long as she does? What does George think about the prayer room? There was, however, a note of sympathy that underlined the actions of all the characters.
The writing is fresh and clear and everything one hopes from a début novel.
And as Viji chewed grass in naked abandon and acceptance, I sighed in satisfaction. It was an interesting read.