Each circle darker than the otherThe novel, then, is a minute observation of a dysfunctional family. A family which, to begin with, was the quintessentially happy, educated, cultured Bengali couple with their beloved son.
Pro tip: This novel is best read with sad, sentimental music wafting out of the stereo. This will brings out true pathos, and create a ready path for all your traumatic memories to come tumbling out. In that regard, Dark Circles, the debut of author Udayan Mukherjee, is synonymous with a feeling of eternal sadness and doom, the cause of which you cannot identify.
The novel starts with death by cancer and progresses (or regresses) to alcoholism, mental illness, suicide, adultery, and existential angst—not necessarily in that order, but each incident and revelation more discomfiting than the one before. As its protagonist, Ronojoy, says, “Everything is topsy-turvy, nothing regular.”
Ronojoy and his brother, Sujoy, have had a problematic childhood. A mother who grows distant, a father who chooses to leave them. Brought up by their grandmother, they show traces of belligerence. In adulthood, this unrest within them begins to show up in more alarming habits. Ronojoy is scared of commitment, while Sujoy is unable to enjoy the warmth of his own committed relationship. At one time, both take recourse to the bottle. The brothers share a strong bond, but also share genes that turn them volatile and unapproachable in different ways.
While each brother struggles with personal demons, their mother passes away in an ashram in the hills, leaving behind a letter for the elder brother, Ronojoy. The letter is the answer to a lot of asked and unasked questions—about the family’s unravelling, the secret whispers, and the boys’ frustrations. The letter is also a Pandora’s Box, one which you wish you had never opened up, as you watch horrified at the rubble and debris it blows in.
The boys’ mother, Mala, bears an uncanny resemblance to Anuradha Roy’s heroine in All the Lives We Never Lived, which came out exactly a year ago. The same adulterous mother, the gradual abandonment, a guilt-ridden and sadness-wracked end. Even the identity of the beloved (or the ‘other man’ if you will) in both the novels is similar. Or perhaps this, the symbol of an ‘untamed, adulterous mother who suffers for her sins’ is a universal character that preoccupies writers and readers alike.
The novel, then, is a minute observation of a dysfunctional family. A family which, to begin with, was the quintessentially happy, educated, cultured Bengali couple with their beloved son. But the birth of the second son changes all that. “I don’t know what happened, but nothing was the same,” the domestic help tries to make sense of it, “That house was so full of love and joy and laughter and then one day it was all gone. It became like a funeral site.”
As truths bubble and simmer below the surface, and menacing secrets begin to unravel, the novel starts to draw you in. It wobbles between the dramatic and the melodramatic, the romantic and pragmatic, and most importantly, the sane and ‘insane.’ This study of the human psyche is perhaps the most interesting and important thing about the novel. Especially mental illnesses and how they affect individuals. It is almost a plea to us to notice our own deviations and illnesses before they begin to control us. This experience of the boys’ father, Subir, could be a textbook case: “This was around the time Subir started experiencing a dip. Nothing alarming, just a nagging sense of feeling low through the day. There was hardly any physical activity, yet he felt tired. He slept more… Almost unconsciously, he started avoiding company.”
In a gentle but still persuasive manner, the novel constantly reminds us of the need to self-examine. To forgive, forget, and be at peace. It is almost Buddhist in approach, introducing us to misery, disease and death in life, that which we cannot escape, that which is our very fate. But this is a cautionary tale of not falling into that pool of despair and failing to live our life is a warm embrace to its readers who are falling apart, an attempt to help people figure out the meaning in their lives within all the incongruencies.
And yet, all the sensitivity and delicacy of the novel threatens to be marred by its style. Transitions in the plot and voice are noticeably awkward, and the presence of an omniscient narrator in the boys’ memories does not make sense. The writing is just above average, there is a lot that can be polished and embellished. There is an overuse of cliched and banal phrases and idioms—“as if he had seen a ghost”; “we were in the dark”; “in my current state of mind”. Unnecessary details about sleeping well, eating a good breakfast, washing hands, drying hands, picking up a phone with your hands… take away the literary flow and charm. The story, also, seems heavily influenced by movies of yore —with a woman made to suffer and pay for her ‘aberration’.
This is not to say the novel isn’t enjoyable. A typically unexciting family story takes on the avatar of a mystery, layer after layer opening up to scrutiny and observation. Explorations on brotherhood and motherhood; depression and violence; sexual fulfillment and emotional longing… all ancient, ordinary themes but reworked by a knowing and sensitive mind. In Dark Circles, Mukherjee revives the forgotten art of telling a story in a simple and unexpectedly childlike, artless manner.
Author: Udayan Mukherjee