To Whom it May Concern by Priscila Uppal
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Priscila Uppal’s second novel To Whom It May Concern is an intriguing and resonant book. It is deep, layered, and written with a kind of luminous prose that, at its best, is whittled with fine felicity. It also, self-reflexively, draws attention to the strong element of intertextual engagement in its craft. The blurb informs us that this is a “modern, multicultural re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear”. That this nugget is handed out – fait accompli – at the very outset, poses an interesting problem: this overt suggestion by the author automatically prods the mind towards a certain kind of reading. Unconsciously the mind begins to look for parallels with King Lear – and deviations; not that there is anything wrong with this approach or this reading but the fact that it as good as lays out a map for the reader means that the book’s dialogue with King Lear is an element that is very very important to the author, so important that it is not enough that the text throws it up but that it must be laid bare.
Set in Ottawa, the novel centres around the Dange family – Hardev, the quadriplegic father who is attempting to hold his family together even as the bank forecloses on their house and the disability benefits offered by the government goes through severe cuts; Isobel, his estranged French-Canadian wife who had brought up the girls but is rather remote from their inner lives; Birendra, the oldest daughter who is about to get married to the suave government servant Victor; Emile, the second son, a brooding intellectual who studies curses and strives to come to terms with his own sexuality; and Dorothy, the youngest child, who is deaf but collects stories as a hobby from a noisy bar close to the tattoo and body piercing parlour where she works. The radiant cast of characters, each sharply drawn with memorable quirks and notions, also includes Rodriguez, Hardev’s homecare worker whose affection subsumes his criminal tendencies and Mohab, Emile’s Iranian friend/lover who is striving to reconcile his sexuality with his spiritual need to situate himself within Islam.
The book engages closely with the question of multiculturalism – combining a subtle critique of the jingoistic jargon of a nation that has only in the recent past moved away from its WASP fixation and made a virtue of multiculturalism, of its “salad-bowl” culture (that is self-consciously distinct from the “melting-pot” that the USA prides itself on being) – and its attendant mythos. But at the same time, Uppal’s treatment of this theme is by no means simplistic – the elaborate lies of Rodriguez are as revealing as his truths. The fantasy he conjures to half-entertain Hardev and half-tolerate himself – that he is an immigrant with a large family, works several shifts to make ends meet and is too tired to study for the citizenship test – is an easier reality for him to bear than the severity of his truth: he was born in Canada, has served short prison terms for shop-lifting, and in his own words – “I guess I should tell you first that I am the worst kind of man. I am a man without family (P. 287).”
And family is what emerges as the central concern of To Whom It May Concern – the strand that Uppal specifically singles out from the rich and dense web of sorrow and longing that King Lear is; she singles it out to tease open its layers, lend light on its fissures, solder it apart and then put it together again. Thus, while Shakespeare’s King Lear is arguably one of the greatest tragedies ever, in this novelized version set in this day and age, the arc of the story explores both the fracturing of the selves and families, and the hints of healing – from the linearity of tragedy as an art form to the robust roundness of the real, where tragic and comedic thrive together and resurface again and again in the course of life.
Uppal uses several postmodern strategies in her narrative. Towards the end of the book, several lies are revealed and we find that the intrusive author has often not been very helpful; but while this might not work for everybody, the ease with which Uppal marks shifts of time, space and point of view, without letting one’s attention falter is brilliant. The handling of sexuality is sensitive if touched with a dash of the bold. I do not recall anything I’ve read of late that compares with the raw power of the scene where Birendra has her clitoris pierced with a ring; as Dorothy who has been professionally trained in this prepares to do it, the sisters bond – and share secrets. The moment becomes an epiphanic one, not only for Birendra, but as a new high in the depiction of relationships between women in fiction. A long distance ahead, from what Virginia Woolf had pointed out as the watershed moment in literature, in A Room of One’s Own:
‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. … It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.
In the final analysis, To Whom It May Concern is an important book, and its voice is both original and sensitive. My quibble with the novel however is this: Uppal is a seasoned academic, and sometimes that tends to seep into her style; for instance, the authorial intrusion at the very end (Chapter 20) appears a little forced. Something that makes the book rather too aware, too heavy. I do hope that in future novels, Uppal will wear her considerable learning a little more lightly.
(Published in Indian Literature, May)