Thwarted Escape: A Cathartic Memoir – Book Review
Shabir Ahmad Mir, noted young poet, writer, literary critic dissects the intricacies of an immigrant woman’s inner sojourns, as a child woman, a woman and mother, and also a daughter, as reflected in the autobiographical narratives of Lopamudra Banerjee’s ‘Thwarted Escape’.
Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey
Why does someone write a memoir? I mean if someone wants to write about the interesting life that he/she has lived or wants to write about his/her ordinary life as a celebration of life itself, he/she can always write an autobiography. If someone wants to write about something fascinating that he/she has witnessed, he/she can always turn to fiction. Why a memoir then?
In case of Thwarted Escape – a memoir by Lopamudra Banerjee, there is just one answer: Catharsis. Yes Catharsis; more than for anyone else, Mrs Banerjee has written this memoir for herself. For her own catharsis.
There are two distinct identities that emerge from this memoir that go on to define the persona of the author as we come to know it. First is that of a woman who has gradually become conscious of her place and struggle within her society and culture. A woman who goes on to grow from a girl-child raised in a stifling patriarchal middle –class family fully laced with its masculine notions of conventions, taboos and mores, into a rebellious young woman who recognizes the hypocrisy of a society that worships the feminine but must every now and then throw up a ‘Nirbhaya/Damini.’
A society in which the stronghold of patriarchy has seeped over generations into its myth, its institutes of power, its religion, its culture, its politics, its economics. It is a society in which no matter who wins- Ram or Ravan- it is always a Sita who suffers. At a very tender age her defiance starts with her little acts of revolts vis a vis her family because she innately recognizes that her family is just a microcosm of the society that she is supposed to live and grown in. And gradually she finds an echo of her moral outrageousness in such voices as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Tasleema Nasreen.
The second identity is that of an immigrant. And like all first-generation immigrants, she is torn between two worlds. There is always a nagging implicit guilt about a new world usurping her original ‘Home’: in reality and in memory. There is a subtle interplay and tension between these two identities: the Woman identity is the centrifugal one, pulling her away from her home and her society because that is the only way of breaking free from it; the Immigrant identity is the centripetal one that calls across the seas to her to come back to her filial obligations and ties, to the joy and love of her city. Between the friction of these two identities, the escape of the author becomes a ‘Thwarted Escape’ and not a complete one. So she must revisit her past, make peace with it; find new meaning to her memories and instead of an escape, she must attain liberation in her catharsis. Her memoir is thus a non-fictional bildungsroman of sorts.
Coming to the architectonics of this book, Thwarted Escape is neatly divided into four parts viz Rhymes, Refrains, Footnotes and memorabilia; Home and Migrant trails; On being a Mother and Life and Death: The Intersection. Each part by and large dealing with a specific theme (not strictly)- the memories of growing up in 1st part, the build up to and the actual migration in 2nd part, Motherhood in 3rd part and a loose assemblage of death, afterthoughts and some sort of closure in 4th part.
Throughout the book, the author is in firm control of her narration. There are two voices at play within the book, one that of present day author and the other that of past; sometimes as girl-child, sometimes as the precocious teenager, sometimes as the young self-aware woman. Both these voices overlap and interact thus paving way for the author to judge, justify, explain, narrate, evoke, fantasize, reminiscence; side by side. Not only narrative voice but the mode of narration is also manipulated as and when needed by the author to suit her own purpose.
Take for instance chapter 2 of part 1st ‘A foolish thing that was but toy.’ This chapter is a montage sequence taking the reader briefly and briskly from the author’s birth to her puberty in a rapid set of images and episodes (It brings to mind the opening of James Joyce’s Portrait of Artist as a young Man; there are echoes of this novel throughout this memoir).
The montage not only serves as an apt narrative technique of childhood which in memory only survives as such- a few brief episodes and striking images but it also scaffolds the author at a deeper psychological level so that she is enabled to revisit her past without aggravating too much of her psyche by the traumatic and painful experiences, for instance her first experience of death and mourning, and more prominently, the sexual abuse. By using montage, she briefly recreates her most traumatic memory but just enough to get over with it. Had she used a different narrative technique, not only would she have to put herself through the pain and trauma again but she also would have had to bring fore the villains from past which would have opened a whole Pandora’s box both at personal and most probably at family level as well.
Then there is the language that flows as a sweet cadence of measured tone and rhythm. This is not only because Mrs. Banerjee is already a poet and singer, but also because of the milieu and literary environment that she grew up in, that of Calcutta Bhadralok. The Bengali language can easily lay claim to some of the best and finest literature ever written in South Asia, if not the whole world. There is something about the Bengali language that makes it titillate like a butterfly on the tongue. And there is ample sprinkling of Bangla verses and maxims in this memoir. But more than that it is the Bangla sensibility that Mrs. Banerjee brings into her English that makes it a pleasure to read her prose. Lines like ‘She was dropped on the earth like an imperfect midnight song’ or ‘Moon is a tear drop away’ can serve as examples. But occasionally the intricacy and filigree of language works to the distraction of the reader as he is carried away and the author loses the full impact of her subject.
One more important aspect of the narrative structure of this memoir is that it follows a non-linear narration. There are too many time breaks and time jumps, both between the chapters and parts as well as within the chapters. The non-linearity within a chapter works, by and large, to the detriment of author as it jags and disrupts the attention of the reader. Just when a reader has invested his attention in the teenage angst and opprobrium of the young author, all of a sudden he/she is uprooted and transferred to the childhood or adulthood of author and the reader has to once again start his/her emotional investment again. Too many and too frequent of this results in emotional fatigue and detachment and the reader fails to keep up with the time jumps and breaks. Although occasionally it does work, for instance in the chapter where there is the juxtaposition of the author’s labor and parturition with that of her mother, the narrative jumping to and fro between 2010 and 1977.
The non-linearity between the four parts of the memoir is a different matter altogether. Here it works to a perfection. Because rather than being running in circles, the narration here works in a spiral ascendancy. Each time the author comes back to a point in time, the point is on a higher level. Thus, when the author returns to her childhood in part two, it is not the same childhood as in part one, for we have seen her defiance and her dreams and her joie di vivre. Thus, the small girl of part two is much different from that of part one. That is how the non-linearity works between the parts.
All in all, ‘Thwarted Escape’ makes for a delectable read and in the prophetic words of the veritable Dr. Santosh Bakaya (as she has put them in the foreword of this memoir), “A book that one wants to go back to, again and again.”
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