Nari A Novel

At a cursory glance, it seems to be an account of sexual abuse told from the viewpoints of both the victim and the perpetrator. But who is the victim and who is the perpetrator?

An attractive clinical psychiatrist saddled with an older, abusive husband is caught by a servant in an illicit affair and blackmailed by him into sex. The teenaged servant holds that it was the woman who forced him as a ‘reward’ for his silence. Matters take an ugly turn when the husband, a retired army officer, comes to know all and confines his wife, and eventually is killed in a scuffle – and both the woman and the servant accuse each other of the murder.

Who is speaking the truth? What is the truth? Can we even determine it? These questions are the focus of Sharath Komarraju’s fifth novel, a dark but compelling tale of competing narratives focussing (in turn) on parental, marital and professional sexual abuse (dealt a little too graphically sometimes), as well as with wider issues of the role of class and privilege in determining justice (and access to it), social norms, aspirations and choices.

The structure is stark. It begins with a brief news flash announcing the killing of Col. Tirthankar and his wife Ramya and servant Narayanan, alias Nari, accusing each other. Then come their conflicting testimonies. Ramya recounts her troubled childhood and life and marrying a man older than her to escape, but only to find he is all-round abusive. She finds satisfaction with an intern at her clinic until discovered by Nari, who demands favours from her and contends she enjoys it. But then it all goes wrong and her husband ends up dead.

Nari, who is scarcely a sexual innocent, having been initiated by the young wife of the local landlord in his village, provides a mirror-image account where the husband is a kind man, and the dissatisfied, predatory woman, pressurises him into sex, and even makes him help her in murder but then sets him up as the fall guy. These are followed by evidence of a handful of other characters.

The novel breaks new ground for Komarraju, a software engineer-turned-author, but then he has always been experimenting with various genres and styles. His debut “Murder in Amravati” (2012) was a classic whodunnit with a supernatural tinge, followed by “Banquet on the Dead” (2012), where a policeman joins hands with an unlikely ally, an elderly, refined ex-thief, to solve a murder in a near-dysfunctional family. “The Winds of Hastinapur” (2013) kicked off his venture to retell the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of prominent women of the Kuru clan, in this case Ganga herself and Satyavati. “The Puppeteers of Palem” (2014) was again an eerie tale of retribution.

But in “Nari”, he takes a relevant but contentious and taboo issue and teases out its multi-fold nuances, particularly the contradictions. As Komarraju says in his afterword, any advances by a man can be construed as sexual harassment if there is no explicit consent from the woman, who is – as per the script – supposed to spurn the advances initially and play “hard to get”, even if she is amenable. This often can (and does) lead to unforeseen, even unfortunate, consequences, particularly when the whole subject is kept taboo by society.

But to return to the book, which ends without resolving what the truth is – perhaps there is none and it does not matter at all – what matters is who you believe and what this tells about you!     – IANS