Book Review: The Grande Matriarch of Malabar

Book Review: The Grande Matriarch of Malabar

Jul 22, 2023 - 11:30
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Book Review: The Grande Matriarch of Malabar

Have you ever read a novel by an author completely unknown to you, and been swept off your feet by the quality of their storytelling? When I began reading The Grande Matriarch of Malabar, written by Sajita Nair, I had no inkling that I would feel so invested in the lives and emotions of her characters. The credit for holding my fleeting attention must go to her profound grasp of how to build a plot, create a setting that feels real and alive, and trap her characters in situations that reveal various shades of who they are and what drives them.

Published by Readomania, the book opens on a dramatic note with torrential rain along the Malabar coast in Kerala. Amidst thunder and wind, black umbrellas, and coconut palms dancing furiously, the dead body of a rich old woman – Dakshayani Amma – is pulled out of a well. The next 200-odd pages narrate the saga of her life in a manner that makes one feel sorry for her, and also despise her. This is a mark of the author’s successful attempt at portraying human complexity without sentimentality or excessive philosophizing.

Dakshayani Amma’s life story is pieced together by her granddaughter Rohini, who comes from the United States to sell the ancestral house – the Kalyedath tharavad – that she has inherited. All efforts to get rid of the property are thwarted by the ghost of her grandmother who continues to live there and drive away potential buyers. Read this book to discover how Rohini pacifies the restless spirit, and finds happiness at a place where she least expected it.

Pavizham, who is Dakshayani Amma’s daughter, and Rohini’s mother, is a significant character in the novel because property is passed down from mother to daughter in matrilineal cultures. While matriliny as an institution is on the decline in the Malabar region, Dakshayani Amma holds on to it dearly because tradition is what gives order and meaning to her life. She fails to see how her stubbornness comes in the way of other people’s well-being.

Securing a suitable match for Pavizham, and ensuring that Pavizham gives birth to a daughter, are topmost priorities for Dakshayani Amma. However, this is not easy as Pavizham can neither hear nor speak since birth. Potential suitors are reluctant to marry her. Dakshayani Amma comes up with a plan that works well for her daughter but not for her son Achuthan and for Pavizham’s husband Sadanandan who is Achuthan’s friend and colleague.

If all this drama is not enough to get your head spinning, you might want to know that Dakshayani Amma compels Achuthan to marry Sadanandan’s sister Gauri. In order to fulfill his mother’s wishes, Achuthan has to break up with his childhood sweetheart Srikala. What makes matters worse is that Srikala is the daughter of Dakshayani Amma’s elder brother. Srikala never gets married, hoping that Achuthan would come back to her someday.

This novel is a mosaic made up of shards of broken hearts. Achuthan is perhaps one of the most tenderly written characters, and one feels truly sad for him because his entire life is spent yearning for love. When he is a child, Dakshayani Amma keeps him away from his father. When he grows older, Dakshayani Amma ruins his friendship with Sadanandan and puts an end to his relationship with Srikala. She takes away everything that brings him happiness. He, on the other hand, stays devoted to her till the very end of his life.

If Dakshayani Amma is as powerful as she seems, why is she so insecure? To what extent is her inner turmoil related to her gender, her relationship with her brothers, and her separation from her husband? Are matrilineal systems inherently better for women than patrilineal ones? Why does Puvizham not show up to take care of Dakshayani Amma who is old and frail?

The novel does not ask these questions directly but it makes room for the reader to ask them. The cover art by Sourish Mitra, which presents Dakshayani Amma’s silhouette, further encourages one to think about the price that she had to pay for the choices that she made.

I would recommend The Grande Matriarch of Malabar for another reason – the sheer pleasure that is to be derived out of language that is rich in imagery. In this book, eyes ooze suspicion, cobwebs hang like chandeliers, black and white photographs are devoured by termites, wicks are placed in kerosene lamps, and gold chains slither like luminous snakes. These are just a few of the many evocative visual descriptions that have stayed with me.

I enjoyed the footnotes because they helped me understand the meanings of italicized Malayalam words used in the novel. However, they might seem distracting or intrusive to readers who prefer seamless narration and like to guess meanings based on the context.

My grouse with this novel is that it does not give the reader much of a chance to learn about Pavizham’s inner life. She is presented mostly through the perspective of other people – her mother, brother, husband, uncle, the domestic workers, and her relatives. They treat her as a liability. The only person who treats her with respect is her childhood friend who makes a brief appearance in the novel. Dakshayani Amma does not want Pavizham to get close to him because he belongs to “a lower caste”. She fears that Pavizham will marry him, and this will come in the way of her securing a worthy heiress for the ancestral house she wants to pass on.

I wonder if the author plans to write a sequel to this book. If she does, I would be curious to know what happens in the lives of Gauri and Srikala after Achuthan dies in an accident. These women are minor characters but they leave a strong impression because of their resilience. Till Achuthan is alive, their lives are defined by their relationship with him. Do they reinvent themselves after his death? Do they spend the rest of their lives mourning?

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist who tweets @chintanwriting

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