ALOT HAPPENS in Amrita Kumar’s first novel Damage — the protagonist Anandita Chandramukhi Isabella Lawrence aka Gudda sneers at her evangelical Christian mother’s friends. She sets off for Bombay where she becomes a journalist and slips into a marriage with an unsuitable Hindu ‘boy’ who proceeds to sleep with any woman who will have him. She returns to Delhi and watches fearfully as her mother, Beatrice, whom she both despises and loves grows more addled; gets into a protracted dispute with her sisters over her mother’s property, while also rushing around Rajasthan in search of her family’s roots.
While sisters, distant relatives, neighbours and hangers-on people this book, one of its themes, as in many first novels, is the central character’s search for her roots:
“When the topmost branches of your tree of life begin to turn yellow you turn to their roots for answers… Who the hell was a Christian in a land of a billion Hindus? How could Beatrice forget that her own forefathers were Hindu? As far as I knew everyone in India was originally Hindu. Which forefather of mine decided he wasn’t?
But we had no forefathers, Beatrice had always said.”
For Anandita, as the VHP conducts its ghar vapasi programmes to reconvert Christians, Hindu fundamentalists attack churches and Graham Staines is murdered, the need to find out about her forefathers, an old Hindu warrior clan called the Dahiryas, grows more urgent. Perhaps she believes the information will magically allow her to understand what it means to be a modern Indian of any sort in a country wracked by religious, caste and class divisions.
Anandita’s voice is insightful and occasionally wry, especially when she examines her sisters’ decidedly unchristian attitudes: “I suspected they suffered from that other sort of amnesia… the one that was exposed when Sujata expressed her rage at those photos of tribals splashed all over the media, her terrible fear of someone thinking she was one of them, someone not seeing the high-class Rajput bark under her exfoliated skin.”
Another recurring theme is the idea of damage — damage that mothers wreak on their children, siblings unleash on each other, husbands on their wives, larger communities on smaller ones and so on in ever-widening concentric circles that ripple out into infinity.
This is a novel that makes you think about religion, about family, about relationships and about the power of politics to contaminate all these spheres of life. You only wish Kumar hadn’t edited her characters so ruthlessly — you’d have liked to know Anandita’s absentee father better and crave for a bit more on why her mother becomes who she does. But then perhaps that’s what good fiction does… it makes you want more.