Book Review: What We Know About Her by Krupa Ge

The cover and the endpapers of Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her feature an illustration that reminds me of Ranganathan Theru, a popular commercial street in Chennai, or rather Madras, as the narrator Yamuna continues to lovingly call this city in 2019, even after it was officially renamed in 1996. In the art that looks grim and apocalyptic on the first impression and eerily real as the story unfolds, a sea of men (quite like the humanity that moves in waves in Ranganathan Theru) walks toward the reader, with just empty spaces in the places where their eyes should have been, and amidst these men, three women stand as though they are squirming under the spotlight that’s trained on them. Or, they are trying to resist being moved by the mob that doesn’t respect their agency, the pressure that’s exerted on them. They go against the current, and their faces betray a certain degree of effort and discomfort. The art suggests that men don’t see what matters, women are under constant surveillance, and despite that harsh light which dictates their lives, we don’t know much about the women. Should this push and pull go on for eternity? If women stop, reflect, and question, what will happen?

Yamuna needs answers. She wants to inherit her home which her commie mother has decided to donate to an NGO; her doctoral research has hit a roadblock; her relationship has flatlined. Her life is under a cloud of uncertainty. When you are tired of digging the same spot in the ground, you would entertain the idea of digging another spot to renew your hope of finding something underneath. Besides every other question that grows around her like a creeper, she lets one question, about her grandaunt, fill her being. “What did this family do to Lalitha?” The truth she unearths just doesn’t answer the question that presses her the most, but the one that shouldn’t be stopped asking. “What are the families, on this side of the world, doing to women?”

The answers come to her in the forms of delightful, traumatic, moving, poetic, introspective letters (even an excerpt, which gets an U/A rating for its language, from an autobiography called I Dream For My Sisters), written in the 40’s, by the women in her family, painting a detailed picture of their lives which were marked by oppression and Gender-based Violence for most parts and caressed and healed by clandestine freedom and art in some parts. The letters document each woman’s struggle with wanting to become her mother and breaking the chain of intergenerational trauma. In this chorus of narratives, Krupa Ge’s writing soars. Each letter starts with a pillaiyar suzhi, offers an intimate view into the letter writer’s mind, and also subtly reveals the way the Second World War directed their lives. The letters made me wonder about the times when I discovered that my mum could swim, the first watch that my dad wore was her gift, her favourite subject in school was physics, and she led a team when she worked in Solidaire TV. That mum, who flickered and appeared rarely and disappeared, shocked me by disclosing truths about an exciting, unknown side of her life, the side that was darkened by the familial responsibilities she was coerced to carry. What do I know about her! What do we know about all of them, really!

The entire novel plays against the backdrop of Carnatic music. There certainly needs to be a playlist on YouTube with all the songs featured in the book. Yamuna, for she is from the current time, tries to be politically correct. When her partner opines that Carnatic music is inaccessible, and ‘even to enjoy it, you need to know so much. And it’s a very closed space, even for someone who just wants to listen,’ Yamuna, who has paid enough thought to the caste-badge that the music wears, clarifies, “I was reading an interview of Rajarathinam Pillai, and he talks about how therukoothu, harikatha, nodighoshti, all of these made Carnatic music the default songs of the masses. All of that is marginalised now, which is possibly why it’s so alienating. It’s become a polarised, elitist space now.” Her narration is consistently laced with the politics of her time, my time. She discusses NRC, women’s reproductive rights, consent, gender security, and even jokes about ‘Allaha.., sorry, Prayagraj.’ Yamuna’s political assertion, as the novel progressed, stopped surprising me, for her grandaunt Lalitha’s views about Hitler surfaced; the oppressed stood by the oppressed.

Even when authors try to write a proper ‘Madras novel’, at times, they are shackled by the need to still make it universal. Once, a ‘Mumbai novel’ asked for it to be abandoned when the author had written ‘turmeric sauce’ for a dish that I haven’t yet understood. Krupa Ge, though, seems sure about catering to readers who know this world and to those who are willing to explore and learn. Clichés and idioms make way for some gorgeous metaphors which stem from South India, rendering an authenticity to the story. “Liked winged termites that come for mud lamps in alcoves, restless, looking for light before the rains.” “Her voice has the same effect as honey does on the quartz lingam in our house.” “The sun was on its way down, and the calm sky, the colour of parijatham stalk, made me homesick.”

After I finished reading What We Know About Her, I revisited some parts of Krupa Ge’s first book Rivers Remember, a narrative non-fiction about the flood of 2015, when Chennai drowned. It seemed like a futile, intrusive exercise, even to me, to connect some dots between the contents of both books, a fiction and a non-fiction, but I followed a sense of familiarity that lingered. Above all, both the books make the universe where Krupa Ge’s writing originates — Chennai, her own grandfather who was a communist and who found the Cine Musicians Union of Madras (it almost feels blasphemous to mention the legendary KV Kannaiah of What We Know About Her in brackets, but I make up for it by sharing a song that he loves), her grandmother who wrote diaries, the narrator named after a river, and some historical events like the flood of October 1943, which destroyed the city when it was already crushed under an air attack by a Japanese aircraft, and which makes a cameo in What We Know About Her at a crucial juncture when a character seeks redemption. Although Rivers Remember was published first, I gather from the Internet that the fiction had been growing in the author for about a decade, blurring boundaries between the real and the imagined. In the first work, rivers remember; in the second one, women want to be remembered. They want to flow, too, unobstructed by gender, caste, and class.

It is our job to keep on living, and to leave a record of what we saw in our time on this earth. If war is always around us, hate is forever holding us, it is we, those in the pursuit of life’s fleeting joys, that bear witness to the truth that art too is here. As is love. If hate and death are permanent, so are love and life. At least for some of us, some of the time.