Well written enough that I got through it without wanting to bang my head against a wall.
About six years ago, I read a book that I thought was brilliant — till the last 50 odd pages. The end was so unlike the story up to that point that I ripped out those pages from sheer frustration.
The fact that I am still fuming over it six years later shows that whatever its faults, the book was memorable. In contrast, the day after I turned over the last page of Soft Animal, a novel by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, I had pretty much forgotten the story. That’s because I felt nothing about it. I couldn’t say I liked it. I couldn’t say I didn't like it. But since I had to review it, I spent some time thinking about why I was indifferent to it. Here goes.
Soft Animal is about Mallika Rao, a 36-year-old woman two years married and currently unemployed, making her way through the lockdown of 2020. She and her husband are together in their rented Delhi apartment, minus household help, but plus Zoom calls for the work-obsessed husband. Trapped at home, Mallika restricts her universe even further by sinking into her head and examining her life, with special reference to her marital status.
I use ‘marital status’ rather than ‘marriage’ advisedly. Even when the novel opens, Mallika and her husband could well be living in separate apartments — she is already emotionally distant from him. Now with none of the distractions of the daily grind, she does nothing but think about her husband, her motivations for marrying him, his family, her family, and the myths and realities of relationships and marriage. She attempts to give her life some meaning by making weekly wellness visits to a senior citizen who lives alone in her Delhi colony, but has to acknowledge that real life is not like fiction and older people are simply regular people, not necessarily founts of transformational wisdom.
Other than Mallika’s contemplation of life and relationships, not much happens in the book. The little action that does take place is all reported through Mallika’s mind filters. This is the reason for my indifference to the novel. While being trapped in Mallika’s head along with her does replicate the claustrophobia many of us felt during the lockdown — this is very well done, by the way, and brought back my own memories of it — there is nothing particularly insightful about Mallika’s musings. Again, when I look at the novel objectively, I acknowledge that this too is true to life — introspection does not guarantee insight. But if I must live in a fictional person’s head for a couple of days, I’d want that person's thoughts to make me think. All I learned from Mallika’s musings is that we should be true to ourselves as far as possible, something I knew already.
For me, Soft Animal was mostly meaningless. Well written enough that I got through it without wanting to bang my head against a wall. But not a book I’ll remember even tomorrow.
By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
pp. 259; Rs. 399