Love is essentially unfair in Idol Love, a novel set in the immediate present and the foreseeable future. There is always a lover and a beloved, a worshipper and an image. Sacerdotal relationships span an age, connecting the untidy, festering Delhi of today with a sickly sweet-smelling Rajdhani, the name of the capital in the twenty-first century.
It all begins when Rajni falls desperately in love with a Ghalib-spouting professor who is set up as the leader of the Secularists after the demolition of a Masjid. He makes impassioned speeches and forms a bond with Rajni during anti-communal demonstrations. Their love-story refuses to end even with death, because in Raminland – the India of the future – everything can be preserved over centuries by faith.
A tale of rebirths and recycling is conceived by a writer who lives to be a hundred, most of the time locked up in her South Rajdhani flat. It doesn’t help matters that miracles take place outside: idols drink milk in temples, and human beings freeze into images. The media only report tales told by the powerful. So to make sense of the fictional world around her the writer is forced to step out into reality where she finds stranger things.
In the old-new land she only half recognizes, incantations are rising from sacred fires to become storm clouds; the complete Indians, now called Ramins, are further suppressing the dispossessed Drohis; revolutionaries with their links in Ghetto 99 and the followers of Maya are singing Ghalib’s ghazals. Moreover, intrigue hangs heavily in the air as another Rajni’s mother-in-law plots to have the young woman’s body ‘restructured’. As one story whirls into another, the aged writer – never out of her depth – throws herself and her books ibnto the fray, in the bargain taking on three generations of her own family, the image-making industry, and the Sadhoo regime of Raminland.
Praise for Idol Love
Anuradha Marwah-Roy’s Idol Love (1999) presents a chilling picture of an Indian dystopia in the twenty-first century.
Antonia Navarro-Tejero in The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914
This is an intricately crafted story, and marvelously innovative in the use of English to suggest Indian languages - the author indicates subtle differences between the Hindi spoken by the Dasas and the Urdu of the Drohis without using a single italicized desi word. A novel of ideas, Idol Love is an ambitious risk to take at this moment when fiction by Indian women seems largely to swirl gently around the vicissitudes of quotidian life.
Nivedita Menon in ‘The Book Review’.
It is a modern love story set in contemporary Delhi against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition and has an interesting twist.
Renu Govil in ‘The Statesman’
Anuradha Marwah Roy’s second novel Idol Love is soaked in the suicidal sadness of unrequited love or alternatively the love of idols in a Hindu state, is shown to be a hypnotist seducing us into false prophecies.
Manish Chand in ‘The Asian Age’.
Anuradha Marwah-Roy is erudite, has a way with words and compels attention.
Khushwant Singh in ‘The Hindustan Times’
Extracts from Idol Love
You said you don't like my poetry
because it says fuck
even to little babes.
I saw myself as a paan-chewing madam pimping verse.
But later in the day when you asked me
about ayahs who manage my children, how many?
I saw myself as a socialite with painted lips.
I blanched and ran to the loo
and scrubbed my lips.
In the mirror, they looked used.
But then I clicked open my purse
and took out a lipstick.
My verse may be screwed
but my lips will be adequately shielded.
Cold dosas between us, their guts out,
I indifferently spear mine, my dreams were different.
Your self-confessed gentleness keeps you bound
to your uncomfortable chair.
You talk poetry.
You have many words at your behest, it is easy.
In sinuous syllables I read your message,
as you talk on,
still bound gently.
I know I must unbind you
with skeletal prose.
are you getting late?
Oh yes, I have to leave right away,
Which smell should I give you?
Toothpaste-mint or Aftershave-Aramis?
All I have of you is a back
and the sun streaking your hair
and your hands counting out the change
over the counter,
and the crumpled bill for our dosas,
ten rupees thirty paise.
It should not be thus,
so unremitting of emotion,
three ten-paise coins,
one, a little bent.
In Rajni's file there are several versions of a poem called `Woman-writer'.
I see her most clearly in this double-barrelled title. Contrary to expectations, she is not assuming an anti-man position, nor is she stating the obvious.
The woman in the title is more a choice of origins. Just as some writers, at a particular time in their careers, call themselves black. The title Woman-writer affixed to a love-poem suggests that Rajni knew that her face too had colour, but it was not the black of protest or the canonical white of tradition. It was the suffusion of a longing imperfectly blended with the fury of failure.
As the Professor spoke about her poetry, the woman began spilling into the writer and she became the woman scorned. Her heart that used to bubble at the thought of her poetry, began to feel like a wrung rag. The notebook that had expanded in her imagination to contain the awesome meaning of existence, contracted suddenly into imperfect syntax. She saw herself as a woman who wrote about unmentionables.
To be rejected by Riaz was unbearable. She squirmed with the injustice of his denial to her. He was being unfair, though she didn't quite know how.
She quarrelled with him incessantly in her mind. The worst of these fights was the deafening silence that followed her neurotic ranting.
How was she to negotiate the significance of this silence, the anatomy of his absence from her life? She who shut her eyes tight one night and said, no, I can't carry on like this, I will have to forget him? She made a valiant effort.
She tried not to think of him.
While returning home from the library she repeated the titles of the books, the bibliography that she had been given, like a rosary.
When they passed each other accidentally in the corridor, she acknowledged his smile with an equally casual hello.
She should have succeeded. After all, what was there to remember?
At two in the morning, she gets up and fumbles for her notebook. Her husband snorts in his sleep. She looks at him with exasperation. His stomach was giving him a lot of trouble these days. Everything tasted the same, he complained at mealtimes. The cook was cursed. Everyday the mother-in-law pointed out that food cooked by servants can never really match the housewife's efforts and when she herself had been younger she had managed everything, hadn't she? But with girls nowadays working outside, home and children inevitably tend to get neglected.
Rajni sighs. She is defeated, so is he. Blame and guilt have gnawed into their marriage. She looks at the yellow tint in his cheeks. Perhaps it is his liver. Perhaps under repeated misuse it is giving way ultimately.
Then suddenly as she turns to the poem in hand, another image flashes in her mind. Then it comes in torrents: the pain of vacuity. When there is nothing to remember how can she honour the commitment of forgetting? How can she get rid of the incubus of fantasy? And she feels lips that she had never touched close to her mouth; as tears drench her cheeks she feels invisible repentant arms draw her into their security and she cries into the night, into sleep.
You have closed the door.
I won't look in,
I won't knock,
I won't call,
I won't cry.
I am going to be
dead for a while.
I will sit here
on your doorstep.
I will wait
to come and
open the door.
Shyam hummed to himself as he brushed his hair. The mirror was chipped, the sink below it had cracked, the tap dripped. He stood at a distance to avoid the dripping water. As he peered into the mirror, he made a seventy-five degree angle.
He didn't understand the words but enunciated them perfectly,
Harr qaum rast rahe din wa qiblagahe,
Man qibla rast kardam bar sim-e-kajkulahe
Every people has its right path, its faith and its focus of worship.
But I, focus my worship on the tilted cap of my Beloved.
Things were beginning to look up for him. The previous year he had been sent by the Ramin government to Europe for a music festival. His rendition of Ram bhajans in London had endeared him to the N.R.R. (Non Resident Ramin) community so much that he was promised three sponsorships for the coming year. He had also put in an application for Ramin status here at home. The interview call could come any time. He had moved to Rajdhani recently, hoping to expedite matters.
Ustad Ram, his maternal uncle, had even secured a job for him. He would be tutoring a Ramin Ardhangini. Before this he had only tutored little girls in Kanpur. Rajdhani was a revelation. The Ramin-areas in Kanpur were nothing like this. The opulence of the buildings seemed unbelievable to him. The whole city was made of shimmering glass and steel. Of course, the meanness of the Drohi areas remained a constant, but that didn't seem too bad. For the first time since he could remember there would be some money in the house.
"Ammi", he called.
There was a vague answer from the kitchen.
"Ammi, do you know this song?" He belted it out, throatily.
His mother emerged from the kitchen, touching her ears to indicate that it was yet another sacred song that he was profaning. "It is Farsi", she said reproachfully. Anything Farsi elicited the same response from her.
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know. Ask Mamu..."
"Ammi, I’m going to start work today."
"Hoon", she said, observing his clothes closely. He wore a light green embroidered kurta. She had spent a month making the complex pattern of flowers, leaves and netting on it. She could have sold it in the Ramin colonies; there was a ready market for such embroidery. But that was when Shyam was about to go abroad and she knew that their passport to freedom was tied to his ability to sell himself there.
"While you are in the Ramin area, try to see Ustad Brijbasan. He was a friend of your Mamu but of course after he got Ramin-status he has not bothered to keep in touch with us."
"Ammi, this is not Kanpur. Brijbasan lives in East Rajdhani. The pass I have is valid only for Kalka-South. It will take the whole day to get to the East. There are just two buses that go there. But tell me, aren’t you well today, Ammi?"
He was asking her why she hadn't smiled at him as she had always done for the past twenty-one years, even through the tears that had mourned for his father's death.
She looked at his carefully combed hair, a lock had been schooled to fall on to the forehead. She smelt the fragrance of roses that emanated from him. She looked at the trousers he wore, a bit shiny at the seams, carefully washed and ironed by her; and her heart cried out to him to stop, not to go into the Ramin areas in this big and dazzling city.
But where were the options? Where were the jobs? All the respectable jobs were with the Ramins. There was the alternative of working with a Drohi-don, earning a lot and then being found with a little hole in ones body, in a ditch.
But it was one thing to teach music to girls in a school and another thing to penetrate a Ramin-household. The Ramin-buildings, large like temples, arose in front of her eyes. Who knew what went on behind those silent, guarded walls where tall, fair-skinned Ramins lived like gods? Did they breathe, eat, shit like other human beings? Or did they suck blood off young heifers after slaughtering them on their altars?
She knew she shouldn't express her irrational fears to her son. She shook off her misgivings and smoothed back the lock of hair from his forehead.
"I want you to go very far in life, son. You must get Ramin-status or apply for migration."
"Aha, you want to live in Paris in your old age. You want to be a memsahib," he teased.
"Yes, of course," she said, "I want my son to be a sahib."
On reaching Kalka-South Shyam parked his cycle at the stand. He fished out the pass from his pocket and walked to the guard napping at the entrance.
"Music-master?" The guard enquired superciliously.
The guard dialled a number and spoke into the receiver. A green light came on at once on the board behind him.
"Go up to the tenth floor and press the button at the door marked 108. Music-master, eh?"
"Yes," Shyam replied again, wondering why the man was winking at him.
"Five thousand rupees an hour, not bad. Be sure to satisfy", said the guard, guffawing. "Saale Drohi!"
Shyam felt his skin bristle with anger. However, there was no change of expression on his good-looking face.
He pressed the call-bell. The door swung open. He walked into a blue and gold room. There was nobody there.
"Salaam, Ustad Sahib", said a disembodied voice. "Turn to your left."
He entered another room, this time pink. Something pink, gold and cream gleamed in the centre of the room. As he entered, she sat up on the fluffy pink carpet and repeated, "Salaam waalekum, Ustad Sahib."
"Waalekum salaam, madam", he replied, lowering his eyes to her feet that looked like soft doves poised for flight. She was reclining on the carpet, yet the muscles were tense.
"Ustad Ram used to tell me a lot about his gifted nephew who started singing even before he could talk", she said. She spoke Raminlingo like a foreigner, stressing the wrong syllables.
He heard himself reply in English, "Madam is very kind. But my uncle is too indulgent. I can see he has been much too indulgent with you."
Of course it had happened before. Shyam had the feeling of having lived through all this, many times. He, too, had grown up on a diet of images.
The film of the year was a controversial one. It had been a major hit in the ghettos. Flash back! Twenty-one years ago, in a hospital for Dasa-Drohis, there had been an emergency case. A Ramin woman driving past the Drohi colony had suddenly gone into labour. In the primitive conditions that prevailed there, huffing and puffing, she had miraculously delivered a baby boy. Of course, they had been unable to save her after the trauma. In the confusion that followed her death, the Ramin boy was lifted by a Drohi nurse and placed at the side of a fellow Drohi who had just lost her baby.
That boy grows up as a Drohi. But blood will always tell: fairer, taller, prouder than any other Drohi, he catches the fancy of a lovely Ramin girl.
After an hour of incredibly action-packed footage, which includes the slow extraction of the toe-nail of a Drohi, the big screen is inundated with the tears of the false Drohi-mother, begging the hero's forgiveness, "Go, live the life that is your due, which selfishly I kept from you. Go, Annadata, go...I can never call you `son' again."
"You speak English?"
"Yes, madam. I learnt the rudiments in school. After that, I taught myself. I want to emigrate."
"Oh", she said. "But you haven't heard me sing."
"I wasn't talking about that madam." In accordance with the script, he looked at her fearlessly in the face. "Every art," he said lapsing into Raminlingo, "has its code of behaviour. You call me `Ustad', so you must be my shagird.
"Yes", she said.
"Yet you don't get up to greet me."
A shadow of recognition fell across her face. She knew the script too. Who didn't in this magic land where such myths were dispersed every minute through celluloid? To be Ramin, to be discovered to be Ramin, to discover a Ramin among Dasas and Drohis, was the stuff fairy-tales and fantasies were made of.
Her eyelashes were like spikes, he noticed. They stood stiffly around the swimming space of her eyes which were taking in his embroidered kurta and the lock of hair schooled to stray. Just below her left eye was a faint, bluish mark. Smudged eyeshadow? The break in perfection bothered him. He began to blush with stage fright.
"I’m sorry", she said. She stood up a little awkwardly and brought out her tanpura from a coffin-like case. Then, remembering something else, she placed it gently on the carpet and took out the tablas from their case. She placed them on the carpet,
She sat down with the tanpura only after he had taken his place.
"Ab na bolo mosey Sham, Madam, if you can remember the notations of ragas, then why is this poor thumri forgotten every time?"
"I’m sorry," Rajni said, raising a tired face and looking vaguely at the ivory and gold drapery rod.
"Na bolo Sham, jhooti preet ki batiyaan, O Sham."
"That's your name, isn't it?" She said, suddenly. " Shyam Sham?
"My grandmother named me Rashid Ahmad, Madam," he heard himself say. "Shyam is just a disguise my mother makes me wear. But will you please concentrate on the thumri. I don't travel for an hour a day to discuss nomenclature."
"Then please go", she said, haughtily. "I only want to discuss names, today."
"As you like, madam. Here’s my resignation."
"You can't resign, like this."
"I can madam. I am not a Dasa."
"Please. Ustad Ram used to allow me to use the tape-prompter."
"Over my dead body, madam, classical music is not learnt with gadgetry."
"I can't remember words. I don't know what they mean."
"You don't understand Raminlingo?"
"Not this kind of Raminlingo. I mean these words, ratiyaan, batiyaan, etc."
"Do you want me to teach you music or not?"
"Then you forget about the gadgets. Sham is Krishna. Krishna is the embodiment of romantic love in classical music. His beloved is expressing her feelings of jealous love for him. The words are those of rejection, but the mood is love - Shringar. She tells him not to beguile her with words any more but to go wherever he spent all those nights away from her", explained Sham, exasperatedly.
"Will he go away, then?"
"Madam, this is poetry."
"But if she tells him to go away, he will and then...She doesn't really want him to go, does she?"
"Madam, don't we often say the opposite of what we mean? Like...like a few minutes ago, when you told me to go away."
There was silence for a while. Shyam was suddenly embarrassed.
"But then you were leaving."
"Well, madam, Krishna would probably plead with his angry mistress. That is what she wants. Should we begin again?"
"That is what I wanted, too", said Rajni, looking at him naughtily. `Ab na bolo mosey Shyam’
Flushing beetroot red, Shyam pretended to study his fingers, as they danced on the tabla.
"Salaam, Ustaad Sahib," she said coquettishly.
He knew the stages of seduction. She would first be an obedient
pupil, then a wily courtesan.
"Salaam", he said.
"Ustad Sahib, I practised all night. You can't be angry with me today."
"What did you practice?"
`"Nindiya na aye, Sham, daras bina, Nindiya na aye.” And I know it means I can't sleep, Sham, unless I see you."
Her arms had a sheen on them. Like pearls. She was wearing pearls in her ears.
Once in his arms, she would be what he wanted her to be, pliant and demanding at the same time.
What was he doing? He could be killed for this. Yet hadn't he known, hadn't Ustad Ram known what would come to pass if he started teaching her? Did he have a chance? He had never known such wealth. She seemed to be the embodiment of poetry, of every love song he had known.
"Ustad Sahib is feeling out of sorts today."
"One who risks his life, does at times fear the consequences."
"And don't I risk anything?" she asked, her lips trembling. That was a trick that undid him completely. Did she know that? With superhuman effort he kept his distance.
"What do you risk, Madam?"
"Why, Ustad Sahib, this unfortunate creature has a heart, a heart that she cannot control."
"And what does your heart say?" he asked smiling, in spite of himself.
"Oh, it wickedly keeps repeating a name."
"And what name is it, madam?"
"What will you give me if I tell you?"
"What can I give you madam? I have nothing."
"Which is to say, you don't want to give anything."
"And do you think that allegation is true?"
"As true as your heart."
"I wish I could reveal it."
"What stops you?" she asked inching closer. "O Sham."
'Idol Love' (Ravi Dayal Publisher) is available at http://www.orientlongman.com/)