Home > mint-lounge > features > Novels: A spook and a spy

On the face of it, there’s nothing that ties together Annie Zaidi’s novel Gulab and M.R. Sharan’s Blue, except perhaps the fact that they have been brought out by the same publishing house in a similar format. Reading them back-to-back, however, teases the imagination.

Where does mythology end and wish-fulfilment begin? Is love still love when the object of that affection has morphed beyond belief? Or—even more extreme—believes that the loved self was only a construct, and now stands rejected as unreal? For all their slimness and very different genre loyalties, Gulab and Blue pack a punch in profound ways.

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A graveyard. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

So who’s speaking the truth? None of them? Or all of them? And, if the latter is true, what does it mean for Nikunjbhai, whose one flash of youthful passion has given way to a lifetime of resigned tedium, who pants after climbing a flight of stairs, sweats without any exertion at all and misplaces hankies frequently, much to his wife’s exasperation?

Gulab: By Annie Zaidi, HarperCollins India. 184 pages, Rs 350
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Gulab: By Annie Zaidi, HarperCollins India. 184 pages, Rs 350

“‘How did you know I left something behind?’ I asked.

‘You came back,’ he said. ‘Those who go away, then come back, they’ve usually left something behind.’"

Superbly atmospheric and understated as Gulab is, I sometimes felt that Zaidi stops just a bit short of pushing the boundaries. In particular, there’s a delicious feminist angle begging to be explored in Saira’s story; Zaidi hints at it but doesn’t really follow it through at any depth.

No such complaints, however, about Blue. It’s subtitled Tales Of Reddumone, The Two-Faced, but the title refers to Prince Rama of Ayodhya. It is, in fact, an audacious book that dares to reappropriate, reimagine and retell the Ramayan with an assurance and sensitivity that makes one wonder anew at the possibilities of the epic.

Unlike Gulab, which is plot- and atmosphere-driven, Sharan’s trump card here is the creation of Reddumone, who finds no mention in any previous incarnation of the Ramayan. Sharp, self-aware, ironical and supremely complex, Reddumone is Lanka’s best spy and Kumbhakarna’s pet. On his direction, Reddumone travels to Ayodhya, where the rakshasa kingdom’s bête noire Vishwamitra has set up camp. The clouds of exile are nowhere over the horizon, but Reddumone is alert to the tensions among the brothers, principally Shatrughna’s disregard of societal expectations, Lakshmana’s forbidden passion for his brother’s wife (yes) and, always, Rama’s own inner tussle with what he perceives to be his dharma.

Blue—Tales Of Reddumone, The Two-Faced: By M.R. Sharan, HarperCollins India, 243 pages, Rs 350
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Blue—Tales Of Reddumone, The Two-Faced: By M.R. Sharan, HarperCollins India, 243 pages, Rs 350

In fact, it is the very lightness with which the author approaches his epic material that is the winner here. Like Zaidi, Sharan too leaves a great deal to the active imagination of the reader; unlike Zaidi, though, the open ends are exciting, even provocative, not merely titillating. Perhaps the most intriguing is the love that blossoms between Rama and Reddumone, hunter and hunted—but who can say who is which?—a bond that survives betrayal and battlefield and culminates in an unforeseen crescendo of calm, even as it humanizes one of the most idealized figures of Indian mythology.

Perhaps the only part of Blue that had me flipping pages rather quickly was the last section, where Sharan breaks the monotony of the single voice by doing a Rashomon, as it were; there is bloat here, which was conspicuously absent elsewhere in the book. It dents but does not diminish the remarkable debut that is Blue.

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