Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial

gangamma (I spent a good hour or so of today trying to find and link to a completely charming short story by Srinivasan that I’m sure I didn’t imagine. There’s a yali in it. If anyone reading this remembers where it was published and/or can find a link, I would be very happy to read it again.)

There’s a vast, overarching conflict in the background of Gangamma’s Gharial of which we see only a fraction. “A long time ago”, a conflict between a small group of twelve yakshas and the rest of their more ascetic community led to a confrontation on a certain hillside. The twelve were defeated, but achieved at least one of their objects–the blue lotuses that they had cultivated in their palace outside time now had a place to grow. The local landscape suffered somewhat, as did the nearby village. The only part-witness to what had happened was a small girl, now left alone in the world. Clutching an apple seed that she has found at the scene of these events, the small girl travels north, to find it a suitable climate in which to grow. Centuries later, the hillside in question has morphed into the temple town of Giripuram, known for its temple (sacred to twelve gardener gods), and the Giripuram tank which is the only place in the world where these blue lotuses grow.

Other places have other blue lotuses but the finicky and snooty blue lotus of Giripuram grew only in the small Giripuram tank. It was a small bluey-purply lotus with a spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon and pine. It was said that its scent could drive away any grief or sorrow–temporarily, of course, for even magical flowers can only do so much. Just three Giripuram gardeners–three people in the entire world–could grow it.

Gangamma, an old woman who grows flowers to sell, is one of these three gardeners. In mysterious circumstances one morning she comes into the possession of an earring, shaped like a gharial and bearing a suspicious resemblance to a piece of jewellery that we, through the eyes of a young girl over a thousand years ago, have already seen tumbling into the lake. The gharial turns out to have some unexpected powers–when worn, it can instantly transport the wearer anywhere they wish to go. It can, however, only travel to a particular place once–great for travelling, not so good for getting back. Gangamma’s first trip is to the mountains in the north, where it’s considerably colder–and where a young girl, feared by the locals because rumour has it that she’s immortal, tends an apple tree with only the tree itself and a friendly chough for companions. Attempting, in an impulsive moment, to steal the tree and take it back to Giripuram, she finds herself transporting all three, and saddled with a new assistant gardener. “Ondu” (the girl will not give Gangamma her real name) is annoyed at her kidnapping and rude to Gangamma’s friends and colleagues, but she does have a way with flowers.

There are, as I imply above, two stories here. The one that we see most of is this smaller, more domestic one: of gardeners and found families and local community and rivalries. Gangamma and Ondu work well together, despite their major differences–Ondu likes wild flowers, Gangamma likes masala in her dosai–in large part because Ondu is openly rude to all the people Gangamma wants to be rude to (quick, someone do a reading of Ondu as the embodiment of Gangamma’s repressed desires). It’s good; it’s comic and full of sudden, clever observations and broadly-drawn but recognisable characters. (“She had forgotten how annoying Kempu was until you knew him well enough to like him despite it.”)

But there’s also the bigger plot–the one where yakshas purify themselves until they turn into diamonds, where there are palaces under the North Pole, where it’s possible to travel to other planets (or at least moons of planets–Gangamma and the Gharial spend a while hanging out on Ganymede when things on earth get particularly bad). The yaksha plot is correspondingly more elevated and tragic. Jayanti, the yaksha of whom we see the most, has deeply conflicted loyalties, particularly with regard to her brother, one of the twelve rebels and now existing in some residual form in Ondu’s chough. There’s a lot to play with here–the idea that Ondu has been living parasitically off her friends, to what extent the yakshas’ presence in these objects (trees, birds, jewellery) is really them–is the gharial less far gone than Jayant and Mahendra just because it happens to be able to speak? Are all yakshas as brahmanical as the ones we see here, or is this not true of the more liberal groups of yakshas whom the gharial mentions?

I’m a big fan of the ‘small people getting caught up in forces bigger than they can control’ plot, and the shift between the yakshas and the humans (and whatever Ondu has become) works really well for that smaller scale story. I like the reminder that Giripuram–its landscape, its temples, its lotuses, its entire ecosystem–is a mere side-effect of inter-yaksha rivalries across millennia. On the other hand, the deliberate decision to focus on the small scale story works best when we know what those larger forces are. By the end of Gangamma’s Gharial we know about as much as Gangamma and Ondu (which is to say, not very much) and perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t feel like the point–it feels like the book could have sustained several chapters of yaksha politics and weird bodies and cloud espionage.

I’m sort of tempted here to compare it to Srinivasan’s previous book, Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Vanamala‘s ending gestures at the possibility of lots more story to come, and there’s a sense throughout of narratives that are big and sweeping but are also tangential to this story–but the book itself still feels complete.

And yet I think I prefer Gangamma’s Gharial precisely for its ambitious messiness and the way in which it spreads its tendrils in several directions at once. (This may be entirely because I haven’t read Vanamala in a couple of years, so please consider this opinion unfixed. It may also be because I share Ondu’s dosai preferences.) Ideally, of course, it’d turn out that Srinivasan is planning several books through which we’ll gradually be able to piece together a sort of superstructure, but even if not, there’s a lot here that I like very much.

 

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