A story between the dreams
Give me a dream and make it come true...
Shreekumar Varma is a Chennai-based writer, poet and teacher. Among his other works are Lament of Mohini and Devil’s Garden. Shreekumar is the grandson of the last ruling maharani of Travancore. In Lament of Mohini, he dealt with the story of a royal family and its escapades. His debut work, like his latest fiction, used the novel-within-novel format. Both the works have, at their core, a writer’s engagement with his work. The preoccupation with the past and the struggle to free oneself of it is also a common thread that runs through both the books. In Maria’s Room, past is mysterious. It beckons from across the border of memory where it has been banished. Its attempt to cross over into present through the ministrations of mind forms an engrossing plot. Curse is another recurring motif in Varma’s work. Lament of Mohini brings up a family curse wherein women are left behind to suffer. In Maria’s Room, too, Raja believes there is a family curse where men are left alone.
The fact that Varma is a descendant of renowned painter Raja Ravi Varma speaks through the heightened visual quality of his work. His vision brings out distinct moods of episodes, much like a painting.
Varma picks on universal subjects of love, loss and death. He adds to this generous scoops of mystery and delectable strokes of word-masonry. Dialogues flow in and out of the narrative inconspicuously. He plays around with words easily and is able to mould the language to his ends. Speech of each character is uniquely and distinctly sculptured.
So, on one hand a little boy’s call is transcribed as “Oos there” the female protagonist’s speech is given a pleasing desi twang, “I don’t like phones only”. The writer’s pen is free of inhibitions and complexes. He brings out the neurosis of his protagonist with a poetic flourish.
The reader is not given the benefit of many voices as the narrative runs in first person.
An acute sense of mystery is evoked as everything is seen and told through the eyes of the protagonist. It becomes difficult to put down the book as a reclusive Raja pieces together the disturbing past.
While mystery has an instinctive appeal for readers Varma balances it with insight and creativity. His own words go on to best describe what he has attempted with this novel:
“What wouldn’t we do To uncoil the coiled And then coil it up again.”
Pooja Sharma Asian Age Plus
MARIA'S ROOM was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize.
Imagination that haunts
They come as multi-talented painters of life, the Indian writers of the post-Salman Rushdie generation. Shreekumar Varma is one of them: poet, playwright, editor, teacher, short story writer for children and adults, and what else. Ah, a novelist too. A decade back, Lament of Mohini was a good find for the browser of recent arrivals. Now Maria’s Room. Is it going to be depressing as the blurb implies or will it be a Shreekumar dish, a mixture of humour and tragedy?
Goa has been in the news recently for unsavoury items in the dailyspread. The backcover of Maria’s Room is no comfort either, as it splashes a bushelful of affairs and tragedy, a treacherous past with perhaps a spine-tingler thrown in. Certainly not a novel for smiling gaily and whispering delectable anecdotes. Remember Bimal Roy’s classic? Dilip Kumar’s car getting stuck in a strange area on a rainy night and the driver suggesting a dilapidated house nearby for the night’s stay. Those curtains flapping around the hero as he recognises the portrait of Ugranarain from a dim past. The entire scenario of Madhumati came back to me as I read the opening of Maria’s Room: “It drained its edges into shimmering slabs that had probably been paddy fields until last week. Black branches, leaves and a few anonymous objects crossed the road, migrating hurriedly from one slab to the other.
The driver shook his head dispiritedly. We were still on the outskirts of Margao. ‘Nahin chelega, saab,’ he mumbled, catching my eye in the rearview mirror.”
Varma is a scene-watcher alright and has a way of coming up often with sentences we like to caress. “People crowded the pool, splashing, raising fountains of sound.” “I stood staring, unable to stop being a bad host.” “I sat on the bed like a modest celebrity.” The multipurpose bathroom the hero shares with Milton, or St Francis as he must have looked like when he was alive:
“... out in the open in his wild robes, the wind on his face and the green brushing his clothes, drinking from the well and offering comfort to his students. I couldn’t reconcile that image with what I saw here. Idols and relics kept reverence alive, but imagination did a far better job — it retained purity and filtered the unwanted. Lorna prayed on, eyes closed. She was at home here. I felt uneasy.”
There in a nutshell we have the hero’s problem. He is a nowhere man, uneasy with writing and panicky when not writing; nervous with sex but jumpy when yearning for it; anxious to write a mystery tale but apprehensive lest he make it grotesque; raspingly rebellious yet obtusely demure. Since Varma sets up the background of a reclusive mother and a materialist father, we have no problem in accepting this character, this asthi-koodam (skeleton), this wanderer in the dark mazes of his own bewildering thoughts, this Raja Prasad who had a three day marriage in Chennai that haunts him in Goa.
Prema Nandakumar, Deccan Herald
Great atmosphere, foggy view
Not many novels are able to combine good writing with good story-telling. Maria's Room comes close — which makes the shortfall easier to sight. This atmospheric, highly literary novel is also an example of a mis-crafted narrative, which, while containing all the elements of a powerful story, doesn't effectively arrange them.
But the elements are there. Shreekumar Varma sets his book in rain-lashed Goa, an inspired choice of setting for a protagonist on a breakdown. Far from the revelry of sun and sand, this is a Goa of overflowing streets, vivid foliage, lonely, courteous hotels. It is the perfect place to brood, and that is our narrator's intention. Following his arrival in Goa, he takes us through his sojourns to the town, his encounters with locals and fellow guests, and his abiding introspections. He is Raja Prasad, a novelist searching for material for his next book, while wrestling with the failure of his last — and more than that, with the scars of personal tragedy. Soon he shifts into ‘Maria's Guesthouse', and drifts into an affair with a young girl, even as he learns the story of another love, from another time. But the events of the past are impinging on the present, and the novel that Raja is writing begins gradually to lay bare his own predicament.
....the book remains very readable. Partly this is testament to Varma's skill with words. He brings to life the primal energy of Goa in the monsoons, so that even when the story flags, the atmosphere holds. His descriptions, as a rule, are precise and vivid: the rain ‘writhes' against a window, a breeze ‘dances' across a swimming pool, lights glow ‘damply'. His language has flair: a cell phone is shaken ‘like a faulty thermometer'; interrupting a compulsive talker is likened to ‘boarding a train in motion'. But more than writing well, Varma cares about his protagonist — and that feeling communicates. Raja may be an enigma to us, but he is appealing in his vulnerability, and his open acceptance of it, as, for example, in his relationship with his father. Not many 31-year-old men could accept their parent's constant concern, and yet come across courageous. And not every writer could write them like that. Which is why, despite its errors of craftsmanship, Maria's Room is well worth visiting. ADITYA SUDARSHAN, The Hindu Sunday Magazine