As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

—Emily Dickinson

Some degree of trouble with “seeing" is so fundamental to our experience of the world that we accept it, often unconsciously, as part of the human condition. Seeing, here, is not just sensory perception but the ability to wrest meaning out of what we observe and experience. What’s in front of our eyes has its own history and context. We also bring our personal knowledge and reflections to the process. Since the capacity for seeing in this way varies among human beings, we get used to living and relating to others as people with imperfect vision.

Our vision is also impaired by our inner life, laden as it is with fears and contingencies. In order to remain sane and feel secure, we blind ourselves willingly to the horrors of the world as well as to the unsavoury aspects of ourselves and those we love. We derive so much comfort from these blind spots that we are scarcely aware that they exist. The social order—family, community, and the domains of work and livelihood—engenders imperatives of its own that compel several kinds of ethical and moral blindness, especially in the treatment of women and children.

How can we humans, with our desires, longing for love, and search for justice, navigate and live in this world inhabited by the existentially blind and vision-impaired? This question forms the core of Malayalam writer K.R. Meera’s latest novel in translation, The Unseeing Idol Of Light. In the first few pages of this intricately plotted novel, Deepti, a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, goes missing during an overnight train journey between Cochin and Calicut. The rest of the novel describes her husband Prakash’s quest, over the next 10 years, to find her. Prakash, who loses his eyesight following the trauma of grief, is assisted by his childhood friend Shyam. Meanwhile, Prakash starts a relationship with Rajani, an orphaned girl with a tragic past. However, he is unable to love her due to his obsessive quest for Deepti. Prakash is also haunted by the need to uncover the reason behind his father’s sudden suicide when Prakash was only 8.

There are many subplots and twists in this tale that features characters struggling with their real or metaphorical blindness: Prakash’s late father, Justice Ravi; Deepti’s father, Madhav Menon; Rajani, the orphan girl who wants Prakash all to herself; Chandramohan, the man whom Rajani marries in an unsuccessful attempt to get away from Prakash; Abha Das Munshi, the young “Naxal" woman Ravi meets and falls in love with in Kolkata, before being forced to return to Kerala; and Sooraj, the congenitally blind boy to whom Prakash feels inexplicably attached.

Though the story unfolds through vividly described characters and events, in edgy prose filled with forensic insights, The Unseeing Idol Of Light is constructed less like a narrative of modernist fiction than an instructive fable. The attempt to find Deepti, futile and hopeless at every turn, recurs ever so often like a Sisyphean tragedy. Several of the characters are congenitally blind, or go blind, introducing readers to other modes of seeing—through hearing, smell and touch—that are equally valid, and to other modes of loving and being loved. At least four characters choose to kill themselves as ways of seeking resolution to an intractable crisis. Chance meetings occur, as if preordained, in distant locations, transforming lives in unexpected ways. The world that lurks at the edges of this narrative is invariably full of violence, where no one, not even a pregnant woman, is safe. Through these strange, dream-like events, we become aware that our trouble with seeing will always be a matter of life and death.

The book is also a study of how people cope with sight and lack of vision. As Prakash tells Shyam, “Sight is nothing but half light and half imagination...You see what you wish to see. And you avoid what you don’t want to confront." The blind, like Prakash or Sooraj, rise to the challenge of their condition with the force of their imagination and through other senses. Those with sight cope with living in the world by developing blind spots. The irony of these inversions is a thread that runs through the narrative, making readers acutely aware of their responsibility to see the truth in front of them, imaginatively and without evasion.

The friendship between Shyam (darkness) and Prakash (light) represents an interesting polarity as well as interdependence. The worldly Shyam, who makes his living as a builder of apartment complexes, is eager to restore Deepti to the material world. His pragmatic search for Deepti inevitably involves illusions and falsehood. Constrained by the demands of his family, his personal life, too, remains a non-starter. He has to lose himself completely in a strange and faraway place in order to rediscover the possibilities of his life. In the case of Madhav Menon, Deepti’s father, his wilful self-deception over the woman mistakenly identified as Deepti ends in tragedy. To Prakash, however, Deepti is the beloved enshrined in his memory and imagination. Both in his love for an absent Deepti and in his compassion for the stranger thrust into his life, Prakash remains steadfastly loyal to the “truth" of his feelings, to the light within.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement is its vision of blindness as a general condition of all humans, not restricted to or even particular to the sightless. As Prakash says in his letter to his father’s first love, who is also blind: “I have come to realize that blindness can also be interpreted as sharing the darkness. In this cosmic darkness that has been thrust upon us, one’s own eyes and vision are inconsequential." What can deliver us from this general debility is, quite simply, love. Abha states this succinctly in her final letter to Prakash: “My son, blindness will inspire us to love, and burn us with its yearning for love. At the same time, it will make us afraid of love. I needed love—not the regular love that any ordinary man could offer. I craved a sort of love that would open my eyes to a new world, into a new light." The transformative potential of love to bring light to the unseeing, to paint new eyes on the face of the beloved, is the central idea of this fable, delivered convincingly through the power of Meera’s art.

The translation by Ministhy S. is excellent. The lucidity and economy of Meera’s prose are replicated artfully, allowing us to remain engrossed in this exquisitely crafted and well-told story.

Since the publication of Hangwoman (2014), acclaimed as a “contemporary masterpiece" and “an epic novel", some of Meera’s earlier work— the novels, The Poison Of Love (2017) and The Gospel Of Yudas (2017)—have been published in English. As a writer who brings a rare compassion to ordinary people adrift in a violent and broken world, Meera has emerged as a unique and urgent voice in contemporary Indian literature.

The Unseeing Idol Of Light: By K.R. Meera, translated by Ministhy S., Penguin Random House India, 272 pages, Rs499.
The Unseeing Idol Of Light: By K.R. Meera, translated by Ministhy S., Penguin Random House India, 272 pages, Rs499.
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