That the heroine of Once Upon A Time is doomed to become some kind of martyr is apparent early on in the book although the road to this event is a long and winding one. Ashok Srinivasan’s first novel, following on the heels of Book of Common Signs, his prize-winning collection of short-stories, is about the cruel destiny of Brinda Murty, an eternally young woman whose beauty and involuntary ability to heal the sick is shadowed by her own unspeakable suffering.
That the heroine of Once Upon A Time is doomed to become some kind of martyr is apparent early on in the book although the road to this event is a long and winding one. Ashok Srinivasan’s first novel, following on the heels of Book of Common Signs, his prize-winning collection of short-stories, is about the cruel destiny of Brinda Murty, an eternally young woman whose beauty and involuntary ability to heal the sick is shadowed by her own unspeakable suffering. It is no coincidence that the novel opens with a chapter titled “Once Upon a Time”, for Srinivasan uses fairy tale elements liberally particularly for the initial chapters of the book. Brinda is born to a traditional and cultural-minded family in small town southern India and the sprawling house is peopled with a cast of characters with striking idiosyncrasies and colourful personalities. Her birth itself is heralded by the stroke of misfortune; her mother has already lost two daughters, and on hearing that her son is struck by a scorpion goes into labour at six-and-a-half months. Using the kind of narrative fluidity that comes with magical realism, Brinda is able to talk about her birth:
I can recall in vivid detail every moment of that day when I was born The women of the neighbourhood overran the house, trotting on each other’s heels with towels and basins of hot water, shouting instructions to each other that nobody seemed to flow. Luckily Janak survived the sting because it was a palm-tree scorpion of the orange-brown variety which is said to be less venomous than the blue-black variety. Later in life, when he developed a marked dependence on the local brew of toddy and arrack (before going on to other things) to slake his unquenchable thirst, the villagers made hand gestures of exculpation and said it must be because of that old coconut tree-scorpion sting and absolved him of all sin for his drunken debauchery.
She continues to recount that a flood of opportunists like astro-logers, palmists, numerologists, fortunetellers and others converged upon the house in Vayalur and convinced the terrified parents that the only way to save their infant was to hand her over in adoption to a couple and then buy her back in exchange for a gunny sack of rice paddy. Naturally this affects the youthful imagination of Brinda when she hears about it as a child, giving her the sense that she is, “an imposter who resembled me it was a sense of being an alien that imbued me early on, which contributed to my never knowing where exactly I belonged or if I belonged to any person or place at all.” The question of belongingness runs through the novel as Brinda must come to terms with the separation from her parental figures, her beloved great aunt Rukmini and the house she grew up in. The theme of belonging and loss is also echoed in the papers of her brother Janak, papers that he has written between his drunken debauchery and his time in the asylum. Written across eight chapters, the novel flows in roughly three distinct sections. The first details the community life of the people that Brinda grows up around. The second section is a movement towards isolation and a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent incidents as Brinda is raped and symbolically impaled or crucified in a nightmarish haze. She never reports these incidents to the police as a result of which they begin to take on a sort of abstractedness. The last section shows the influence of absurdist literature with Kafkaesque dimensions when Brinda is hauled up by the authorities and imprisoned with the directive to be inhumanly punished without any real explanation of her crime. She recounts:
It became clear to me then that the authorities were bent on keeping me alive at any cost so they should not be robbed of the chance to slake their thirst and assuage their hunger for me they would lay their hands on me they would stone me until my features were altered and I resembled those who battered me more closely than I resembled myself I would be forced to assume the shapeless forms of mutilation performed on my sex since the start of time.
Her only crime appears to be the peculiar nature of her existence for much is made of her ability to be a healer and to remain inviolate and beautiful despite the grinding rigour of everyday life. The seed of darkness has been sown from the very first pages of the story with a harkening to the fairy tale world of oracles and prophecies as Brinda’s beloved great aunt Rukmini dangles her as a baby and cautions her that she will suffer to satisfy the “deepest needs” of the common man to have “the image of yet another mother goddess”. Srinivasan’s harsh and searing portrayal of the cruel destiny of a female Christ-figure is not for the faint of heart. He conjures up the protective and destructive forces from the crucible of childhood to generate the unpalatable fate of the inviolate in a world of sinners. Karishma Attari is a Mumbai based book critic and author of I See You a coming-of-age horror novel