Kathgulab was not an easy book to read, and it is not an easy book to describe. At best, I can describe how I dealt with it.
I can only describe how I found myself translating each line, turning the words over and over in my mouth, whispering them back to myself in three different tongues, and wishing hard that others could also read this book, wanting to thank Mridula Garg for having written it.... Why had no one told me about it before?
That said, I have to add that it is not what I would call a 'narrative masterpiece'.
It doesn't tell a damn good story. It doesn't build spectacular or unique protagonists. It doesn't have any set pace. It meanders, goes off at tangets. It is more like a shape-defiant matrix, than a narrative. In fact, even the ways in which the paths of the major protagonists criss-cross... all too pat, for my tastes.
But what Mridula Garg may ignore, by way of plot, she more than makes up for, in dissecting desire. These are not stories of people; not just that, at any rate. These are stories of an internal landscape, of philosophies, the routes they found and were betrayed by, and then, these are stories of their times.
Garg has chosen five major characters - Smita, Aseema, Marianne, Narmada and Vipin.
The book itself is divided into five sections. One for each protagonist. However, though all of them begin in the first person, the narrative invariably switches to third person. Not that this annoys the reader in any way.... in the case of Smita, in fact, Garg switches to third-person for a definite reason... 'it is easier to pretend it is all happening to somebody else, isn't it?'
Smita is the one who has memories of a kathgulab (wood-rose).
(Having never seen one, I found it hard to absorb the redolence of the first few pages, given over to the flower - the unusualness, the fragility, the eternity, the sudden flowering, the black-hearted seed.... I struggled at first, also because I read the book in the original Hindi, which one reads rarely. But by the time I touched the seventh page, I found myself tied to this tale.)
Smita's account - written in the same distracted vein in which it might have been conceived - is wrapped up in memories of a Kathgulab bush that she once grew. She has many memories... Memories that jumped between decades, years, across continents, between now and then and here and nowhere. Memories that are suspect - may not be memories at all. Smita is the one who chooses a plant for a best friend in a foreign country, and almost has a nervous breakdown when autumn gives way to the white tomb of winter.
Marianne tells you about intellectual rape. Marianne is the one who recognizes the essential unity of women across ages and times (she herself is all women), but also recognizes that each one is different. She is the one who discovers that creation is the real instinct, reproduction is but a manifestation of this instinct.
Narmada is the domestic slave. The orphan. The one who is so fascinated by a word like 'jhenp' (embarassment) that she thinks it would be nice name for a daughter. The one who knows when she is being used, and will no longer let herself be used - not even by the newspapers. She, for all her lack of education, sees the irony of people refusing to give a beggar-child a coin, but spend happily enough on books or papers that tell stories of destitution.
Aseema has a violent streak - the overwhelming desire to beat up every man she meets. If not through her karate chops, then using her sharp tongue, her rationale. She refers to her father as 'haraami number 1', and her brother as 'harami number 2'. (Gradually, she demotes her poor father to 'harami number 25', as life introduces her to newer forms of masculinity). She is the one with the courage to set her own aspirations free - change her name from Seema (boundary/limit) to Aseema (the one with no boundaries).
Aseema is the one with the clarity to see that the urbal 'liberal' feminists have a vested interest in limiting poor women's formal education (who'd do the dishes, then?)
And Vipin - the only male protagonist, and the only one who is not a 'haraami', even Aseema is willing to concede. The man who believes that if there is anything which is eternal, all-emcompassing, indivisible, formless, complete - it is pain. Sorrow, then, is his God. And he spends his life escaping this divine ideal: no love, no marriage... But then, he wants a baby, after all. And for that, he needs a woman.... a young woman at that.
For me, all these characters and their stories are significant because the questions they grapple with are my questions. Faith, human nature, gender, rights, instinct, children... eternity, divinity, memory, inevitablity.
Kathgulab confronts these... no, it bring you to these questions... and leaves you there. At your own personal crossroads.