Letters are powerful receptacles of thoughts and emotions because the writer leaves behind a little bit of himself in every line. Keki Daruwalla makes good use of the power of letters in his third and latest novel Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama. Written entirely in the form of letters and journal entries, the novel invites the reader into the minds of its two protagonists, Seema, and her mother, Shail, as the two communicate with each other only through the written word — Seema pens letters to her deceased mother, while the mother leaves behind a journal and three letters for the daughter. “I wanted to communicate the intimacy that exists between mother and daughter. Also, third-person narratives are dull,” jokes Daruwalla, when quizzed about his epistolary offering.
The book also functions as a veritable time machine, taking the reader on sojourns through some crucial moments in history, starting from the Emergency, infamously declared by then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Seema’s unguarded observations and wry expositions lay bare the absurdity of it all – the haphazard promulgation of the ordinance (which in the book transpires in the President’s bathroom) to the inept manner in which the Janata government tackled the occurrence — but with a good dose of humour. “When you want to turn a thing into the absurd, the best scalpel is humour,” says Daruwalla.
While Seema’s letters hark back to the India of the 1970s and 80s, her mother’s journal delves into a completely different time zone – when firebrand revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and M.N. Roy walked the earth. A staunch communist herself, the mother’s entries provide a refresher course on communism in the 1910s and 20s and the significant role the Bengal revolutionary, M.N. Roy, played in this chapter of history. “I had to read a lot on M.N. Roy, including his biography. I always knew I wanted to write about him because he is a fascinating man. He was an intellectual in his own way, with no formal education and he shipped explosives into Calcutta when he was just 15 or 16,” exclaims Daruwalla. The novelist paints both Seema and her mother as independent, intelligent, politically conscious women, making their penned musings a treat to read.
But the charm of the novel does not lie in its careful chronicling of names and events; it lies in the way Daruwalla ties the past to the present, making us see how history is repeating itself in ways we hardly realise. Though set in the past, the novel provides a sardonic, allegory-fuelled commentary on a range of contemporary issues, from intellectuals getting persecuted to the authoritarian strain that seems to be creeping into politics to issues that continue to the plague minorities and women. The references, though veiled, are striking and unmissable. The novel also takes a critical look at revolutions, making us question the power of idealism when pitted against reality. Though one does get the feeling that too much has been crammed into 200 pages, and that the excessive mulling over events takes away at times from the otherwise emotional, intimate narrative, Swerving to Solitude isn’t a novel that is difficult to digest, because Daruwalla’s poetic prose and philosophical musings make the harshest truth palatable. He also leaves a lot unsaid but with enough hints, provoking the reader to lapse into contemplation and arrive at answers that startle, because they stem from a place too close to home —reality.