A Song for Bela
By Gayatri Majumdar
Flying home from Pondicherry, India, to Eugene, Oregon, after much discussion of the possibility of our two cities becoming Sister Cities, I happened to watch Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. “OMIGOD,” I exclaimed to myself. This “trainwreck” of a woman is the American “sister” of acclaimed poet/editor/ Brown Critique publisher Gayatri Majumdar’s Sara in Majumdar’s first novel, A Song for Bela.
Like Trainwreck’s ‘Amy’, Majumdar’s ‘Sara’ is what we might call “a functioning addict,” a talented young woman, able, if just barely, to hold one job then another, who drifts in a haze of drugs and alcohol, in Sara’s case, from city to city, in both cases, from bed to bed, drunken party to drunken party, hangover to hangover, in search of the love and stability that her own childhood had been unable to give her.
In Sara’s case, the dysfunction of her childhood family was as much a reflection of her homeland, India’s, political dysfunction in the wake of British colonialism and the Muslim/Hindu ethnic struggles which resulted in the 1947 creation of Pakistan that came with British withdrawal as it is of her Marxist father’s infidelities and her mentally ill mother’s inability to mother; her mother’s suicide.
Sara is suffering from what might be described as “post generational PTSD.” She is a survivor’s daughter. A suicide’s daughter. (Sara’s mother, who barely survived monumental losses of home and loved ones, who could not, in fact, distinguish the inner demons from the outer, could hardly be expected to have raised happy, well-adjusted children.) Sara (as is Amy) is longing to give and receive love. But she doesn’t know how.
In Trainwreck Amy’s case, all problems are solved when she finds and learns to accept, “the right man.” Gayatri Majumdar's ‘A Song for Bela’, however, goes deeper. In her spare room, the one packed with memorabilia she hasn’t had the heart to discard, Sara meets ghosts: the spirits of the displaced, including a dark boy child who calls himself “Nirvana,” her own mother as a child, eventually even her own young self – and then there’s “the voice.” (Could these be manifestations of Sara’s own psyche, made nearly material through the gift of possibly hereditary schizophrenic hallucinations?). It doesn’t matter. As these buried parts of her people/herself express in vivid detail their losses and suffering, they force her to face her avoidances head on. Through this sort of “ghost therapy,” Sara begins to understand who she herself, a result of historical/personal suffering, is. And as the hallucinations/ghosts rapidly grow from childhood to adulthood, her own psyche also “grows up” and thus Sara becomes a functioning adult, no longer needing to hide behind alcohol, drugs, and destructive relationships, at last able to forgive, to accept her damaged family members for the worthy human beings they are, to accept even her own damaged self as worthy of love. And so healing begins.
This all takes place in an India I, as an American, am only beginning to meet, but which Majumdar’s detailed and sensual place descriptions (as Sara travels back and forth between Mumbai and Delhi) gives me a sensual experience of. Besides the sounds and the smells and the sites of Urban India, her characters’ voices give me a sense of the minds, the language, the inner as well as the outer perspectives, of young Urban Indians living in the wake of generations of struggle.
Whether you are Indian, a foreigner interested in India, or merely a member of the modern human family, Majumdar’s A Song for Bela is a book worth reading.
If you’d like to get your copy, please drop in a line to Gayatri Majumdar
(email@example.com) for a neat 10% discount!
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Price: Rs. 250/$5.99