“Hit backspace to delete what has been stereotyped” – the interesting phrase that appears on the nameplate of an alternative art studio that features in the book, more or less sums up the premise of Rimi B. Chatterjee’s novel Black Light. For in this book the protagonist and its narrator are both victims of societal stereotypes in more ways than one.
Satya Sadhan Sarkar, a-30-year-old journalist from Calcutta has slowly gotten used to his uneventful life of editing stories, churning out headlines and adding a bit of sensation to every story that makes its way to the newspaper on a day-to-day basis.
Satya’s unremarkable life continues in its unremarkable way until his aunt’s sudden death shakes up his whole inner being and consequently, the dull life he had known for so long. Medhasri Sen, Satya’s aunt commits suicide. And in order to salvage the family’s reputation from being associated with anything scandalous like a suicide, her brothers are more than relieved to pass it off as an accident.
However, Satya doesn’t quite doubt this till he comes across some of Medha’s cryptic works that serve as clue to unveiling the real woman that Medha was.
As we read we discover that Medha is no ‘normal’ woman with a ‘normal’ set of wants or desires like most of us otherwise normal chaps. And her misery stems from the cruelty of her fate that places her in ‘normal’ circumstances where everything she does or says is viewed as an aberration.
If our society is a model of stereotypes, then Medha is an individual who goes against the very intrinsic nature of our society. Consequently, her rebellious voice is stifled and gagged every time she tries to make herself heard.
Her husband, who abandons her, calls her a ‘dreamer’ with a hint of disdain in his voice. And he is right for a dreamer she is. The free-spirited Medha trapped in a marriage with two children, and tired of strangling her inner voice, finally starts leading a double life, thereby giving vent to those screams that have been suppressed for long.
Placid on the outside, Medha gradually starts giving expression to her inner life rich in images, colours, visions, hallucinations and a curiosity to uncover the deepest secrets of religion that rule the world. And what’s more, she secretly travels to obscure locations across eastern India to get to the core of various religions – from Buddhism, Hinduism to Islam and spiritualism.
But no one has any inkling into the rich inner life of Medhasri Sen or no one would have known that Medha was much more than just a woman with ‘weird’ ways, unless her nephew Satya stumbles upon a trail of clues that traces the sheer brilliance of her being.
Satya, in search of answers to the conundrums that Medha has left behind, is transported from Chhattisgarh to Mirik and across the length and breadth of eastern India. Finally he unearths all the clues and as the jigsaw falls into place, Satya discovers the life and works of a remarkable artist, whose voice and talent would have been lost otherwise, thanks to our society’s stereotyping her as someone crazy and delusional.
Rimi B. Chatterjee’s novel lends a voice to the unheard cries of those brilliant minds we keep choking with our set perceptions. Chatterjee’s novel is an attempt at exploring the life of those who live beyond the black and white lines and strokes that our society represents and inhabits a world that is thriving in colour and imagery.
However, in doing so, Chatterjee often turns out to be obscure and cryptic in her writing, trying to elevate anything unusual to the level of profundity – which may not always be the case.
Black Light, true to its title, hardly emanates any light and is a dark meditation on human condition – of the desire to be heard, precariously, balanced against the compulsion to fit in to societal mores and norms.
Brace yourself for a taxing read if you’re picking this one up. Chances that you’ll be prone to pangs of depression in the process of reading it are also quite high. Chatterjee’s style is brooding, true to the nature of the book. The plot also runs the risk of being contrived in parts.
One last word though, the sketches that appear in the book are worth taking a look at because it adds to the grain of complexity this novel overdoses on.
(Black Light by Rimi B. Chatterjee is published by HarperCollins, Rs 299.)