In Exile From the Times: Keki Daruwalla’s ‘Going’

Something about Keki N. Daruwalla’s Going will not actually let go of you, despite giving you leave to let go. Its title, as every title worth its salt should, piques curiosity. One is eager to know what led to the title or what the title, in all its omniscience, is capable of leading one to. But it is not until the reader’s spirit has been immersed in the small, fragile universe of the five stories comprising this book that the reticent title decides to break the ice. Once the conversation matures, the reader is startled to discover that certain words can mean exactly what they say without affectation, figurative ambition or linguistic fanfare, the book’s title being, in context, one of them.

Going, in its primary sense, is a book about transit, movement and continuous motion. The present continuous tense of the word is vital to its identity. Here, as the stories seem to underline, is steady progress that precludes the ideas of departure or destination. One keeps “going” by the strength of intention, convinced that one is no longer where one began though one is certain of not having arrived.

The book is, interestingly, prefaced by a quotation from Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter that says – “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin…

In these lines is a solace for those in exile, for the homeless, or for those seeking a home. If one wished, on the contrary, to escape home or to sever one’s ties with it, here would be a serious quandary, fatal claustrophobia emerging from the inability to be liberated from a home intrusively inhabiting the skin.

It is to such claustrophobia that the stories in Going distinctly address themselves. Subtitled Stories of Kinship, the book offers a composite philosophical critique of the biological and socio-cultural institution of the family. Pitting individual volition and autonomy against familial authority, dependence, custom and convention, these stories weave intricate tapestries of emotional conflict.

“…A family is a part of the times,” asserts Daruwalla in ‘The Long Night of the Bhikshu’ and to turn one’s back upon the times is also to reject the tenacious hold of the family. This, however, is easier said than done as Going asserts through stories that focus, almost exclusively, on the parental/filial bond or rather a knot, as one would see it, with its overwhelming capacity to resist separation except through violence. 

In terms of setting, the five stories in Going offer a diachronic arrangement as they move from colonial India to the present times. Daruwalla’s sweep, in every story, remains wide and panoramic in its attempt to take in the entire social scenario in one go. His satire, as always, is robust, agile and unsparing. In ‘The Brahmaputra Trilogy’, for instance, he remarks about Indians:

They can be very emotional – and good at speeches. Deprive an Indian of food – he’s been without it for centuries – and he won’t say boo. Push him off the stage before he has made his speech and you have an enemy for life. Why are you laughing? They love rhetoric.

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In ‘Daughter’, the Parsee father ruminates on the strange restrictions for menstruating women:

Because with the onset of the period a hundred taboos descended on the woman. She could sit only on one particular chair, made of aluminium piping, eat in one particular plate made of steel, and sleep on an old iron bed with iron springs. Metal could not be defiled. Once the period was over she was to shampoo her hair and change into normal clothes. There was also a change of linen in the room. Only books, schoolbags and her tennis racket remained unchanged, immune to pollution.

In the eponymous story ‘Going’, the female protagonist comments thus on a volume of Sanskrit verse:

Was it always the woman who went to her lover’s house those days? Didn’t the men venture out? Or was all adventure the lot of adventuresses, with the men dull and slothful as ever, confined to the wedding couch unless someone infinitely brave strayed, literally, into their bedrooms?

But satire and irony in Going are more nuancedly metaphorical than literal. ‘The Brahmaputra Trilogy’ revolves around a son’s bitter vengeance towards a father who, ironically, forgets or successfully pretends to forget his act of having sired a child. In ‘Bird Island’, Sudhakar’s resolve to forget the fact that the day marked his son’s tenth anniversary of disappearance and perhaps death, actually leads him to his son.

The irony of fifty-nine-year-old Ardeshir Bilimoria in ‘Daughter’ is that his everyday ritual of flawlessly fastening doors and windows to keep his family “as secure as the crown jewels in the Tower” is proven hollow when his daughter elopes. In ‘The Long Night of the Bhikshu’, irony arrives with the bhikshu’s finally settling down on the piece of land where his own home had once stood after having wandered across the country for years, the gentle irony of ‘Going’ is that the protagonist’s grandmother dies in the ten minutes that she had left her to make her some soup.

Mothers, whether present or absent, loom large here. In ‘The Brahmaputra Trilogy’, Vikram’s inability to hate his mother for his illegitimate parentage became “a thing of guilt in time; affection in the suburbs and hate at the core could tie up a mature person in horrible tangles”.

In ‘The Long Night of the Bhikshu’, the mother watermarks the bhikshu’s dreams and constitutes, perhaps, the subconscious force leading him home. In ‘Going’, the tight-lipped mother-daughter relationship markedly lurks in the story’s consciousness – “It gives you an eerie feeling when you realize that you have passed more than half your life with a person without ever having met her.” 

Also read: Book Review: An Indispensable Weaving of Women’s Words

Historical and cultural memory runs strong in these tales. If ‘The Brahmaputra Trilogy’ documents the changing economy and demography of colonial Assam and ‘Bird Island’ offers readers a glimpse into the opulent world of the Nawabs, ‘Daughter’, in all its sincerity, makes an attempt to chronicle the history of the Parsee community in the Indian subcontinent:

…a dying race. If only she had paid heed to the fact that Parsees were declining at the rate of a thousand a year. At this rate of statistical decline one could give them another eighty-five years. And then they could join the ancient Romans and the Egyptians and find a nook for themselves in the mummy-wraps of history.

But what Going most characteristically preserves is ecological memory – the memory of human association in and with the landscape. Vikram’s most redeeming memory is that of his mother feeding pigeons in the yard. Sudhakar’s lost son finds his desired way of life on the bird island “with the river-wind and the river, with bird and fish, and with silence, with the seasons and the night”. Ardeshir realises that his loss of his innocent daughter was only “a gateway to the vast history of human loss, stretching back perhaps to Eden”.

The bhikshu becomes a committed inhabitant of the natural world to the point of losing distinction between sentience and insentience – “If the rain could walk out of the sky and leave, what was he doing here on terra firma, which was after all just a sense impression?” For the protagonist in ‘Going’, the visit to her grandmother’s house connects her to a wide ecological sensibility through which love, age and even death can be understood as necessary, inevitable and philosophically traversable:

An aroma of age, like the yellowing of language. Things unkempt, yet not gone to seed. I don’t know how to express this, Mama, but I am overflowing with feeling. A feeling hard to define. A little love, a little gratitude. Not just for you, but for providence itself, that I am with you at this late moment….

The plots in Going are simple and compact though the narrative is often, deftly layered so that understanding grows through vibrations and circumambulations rather than through linearity. Daruwalla draws his characters, even the minor ones, with fine descriptive strokes and sharp psychological clarity and long after these stories have been read, the characters linger as legitimately as neighbours whose lives we have shared in moments of crisis and intimacy.

While every individual tale has its own local landscape, they connect seamlessly with one another through thematic and philosophic resonances with the result that the collection, as a whole, builds up for the reader a distinctly identifiable fictional topography.  Suspense, wit, humour and philosophy occupy equally the pages of Going, imparting to it a raciness that makes the book one thoroughly engrossing reading session from start to finish. But if you think you are done with it, you are not for the book’s profound poetry will compel you to return to it each time you are seeking refuge from the times.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated with Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She is the author of three collections of poems, the latest being Inhabiting (2022). Her recent work can be read in Economic and Political Weekly, Pine Cone Review, EKL Review, The Woman Inc., LiveWire, Madras Courier, Berfrois, Lucy Writer’s Platform and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2021, among others. Shortlisted for the Deepankar Khiwani Memorial Prize 2022, Basudhara loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

Featured image (editing): Ujjaini Dutta