‘If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here’, by Sarayu Srivatsa, brought to mind Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’. Like Okri’s tale, it focuses on a young boy whose life is blighted by his family circumstances and the fractured culture in which he lives. The supernatural aspects of this story are, however, less pronounced. I found it more accessible and incredibly sad, dealing as it does with a child who has no control over the way he is treated by the adults entrusted with his care. It is a story of family and grief interwoven with the influences of religion, superstition and history. It is an exploration of the impact of abandonment, of person and place, and how the abandoned are damaged by a lingering desire for what has gone.
Set in the coastal town of Machilipatnam, in post independence India, it narrates the early life of Siva, who lives with his mother, father, grandmother and their staff in a large, rundown house built by an Englishman, George Gibbs. When Gibbs left the town his name remained on roads, in the research facility and factory he founded, and amongst the belongings he left behind in his home. Siva’s father now runs the research facility and his grandfather the factory.
The book opens with the circumstances surrounding Siva’s birth. His mother, Mallika, had longed for a daughter that she may be the mother she had always craved, her own mother having died giving birth. Mallika’s mother-in-law, the pious widow, Patti, calls on all her Hindu gods to grant her a grandson, that three generations of the family may cross over from heaven into eternal bliss rather than being reborn again and again into this cruel world.
Mallika is unmoved by Patti’s desires. She prepares pretty dresses for her longed for daughter. When she goes into labour a daughter is indeed delivered, who she names Tara, and who minutes later dies in her father’s arms. Mallika is distraught, rejecting the twin who follows his sister from the womb. The only way the family can get her to care for her newborn son is to allow her to pretend that Siva is Tara, a charade that is played out until the boy starts school.
Siva believes that Tara lives inside him. He longs for his mother’s love but is rejected time and again if Mallika is forced to confront the fact that it was the boy who lived. The rest of the household, although uncomfortable with Mallika’s unstable behaviour, tolerates her foibles in order to maintain the uneasy status quo.
Siva befriends Rebecca, a motherless young girl two years his senior who lives with her father and grandmother in the local town. Siva feels more comfortable with Rebecca and her friends than with the boys at his school. He is intrigued by another town resident, Sweetie-Cutie, who was born a man but now dresses as a woman following castration. Siva questions his own gender, longing to be a girl that he may regain his mother’s love.
Siva’s father encourages his son’s interest in science. When Siva goes to his father with heartfelt questions he is given factual answers. These offer him more comfort than the life lessons he is given at school which are skewed by Christian beliefs, or the teaching he is offered by his grandmother with her Hindu faith and superstitions. However, Siva’s father is devoted to his work and has little time for his son.
The interweaving of George Gibbs and his story with the contemporary tale seemed a little surreal but added to the underlying exploration of identity, a struggle for both Siva and his country. The writing is, in places, beautiful and profound.
As Siva approaches puberty he finds himself further alienated and contemplates drastic action. It is heartbreaking to read of his pain. The parallels between Siva’s struggle and that of his country are understated but skillfully portrayed.
This book was rewarding to read and a lesson in a culture that can be challenging for a western mind to understand. The reader is left to wonder how a child can ever recover from such a skewed upbringing, how a country will have been damaged by forced transition and then abandonment.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose Books.