Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
The river whispers maddening things to me in a slow, sinuous rhythm that wraps itself around me…. Her voice burrows within me, flowing inside me. ‘Nadee…’ she says, in a fluent, gentle cadence, ‘there is only one way out of this trap….’ Her words rush into each other, colliding and bursting like bubbles in the air before slithering into my ears, filling my mind until they crowd out every other thought, leaving me at her mercy. Others are oblivious to her insidious, hissing, sibilance and go about their business.
Thus read the initial passages of Chapter Four in The Burden of Foreknowledge. Sensuous writing that transports you from the mundane to a plane where all your senses are on high alert is the hallmark of this fine first novel by Jawahara Saidullah.
Over the past few days, I’ve read this book in a few different settings – at home on the sofa, in bed, in airport lounges and hotel rooms. But each time I pulled my eyes away from the book, it was mildly shocking to come back to my surroundings and realize where I was.
The story is about a young girl we come to know as Nadee and the tragedies that befall her, starting with the loss of her entire family to a flood in the first chapter of the book. From then on, the novel arcs its way, with Nadee, to Kashi (where the raging Ganga dumps her, the sole survivor), Agra and Fathehpur Sikri where Nadee encounters the final twist of her fateful life. All through the book, glimpses of what is about to come flash on the pages as Nadee recounts the visions of the future that come to her, enticing you to read on. Nadee’s suffering and her emotionally deadened state are made all the more poignant and stark by the sensory imagery that pervades the novel.
Set in the late 1500s in the time of Emperor Akbar, Burden is chock full of finely etched characters that the author has somehow acquired intimate, thorough knowledge of. Imagining the goings on in a time five hundred years ago is difficult enough, but to imagine them with the kind of detail that is on exhibit throughout the novel is quite something else.
I particularly liked the descriptions of life in the “house of culture”, the “house of passion and longing” in Agra and its cast of characters – Nafasat Bai, Amma Jaan, the multitude of servants, the patrons and the rooms in the cavernous house which seem to have lives of their own. Some characters and events are familiar, from the history books of high school, but the novel casts them in a new light, enabling you to see them through Nadee eyes, feelings and individual circumstances. The assured advances of the plot through the familiar terrains of history are a delight.
If you are up for a great story, warmly told, one that transports you to other worlds and constantly leaves you surprised, breathless, feeling that tiny bit off-center and wanting more, then I highly recommend The Burden of Foreknowledge.
Price: Rs 295