Kali Ganga is a dark novel. A brooding Hardyesque pessimism hangs over the actions and the characters. They seem to play out the veracity of the sumum bonum of Greek tragedy, viz. indomitable courage in the face of inevitable defeat. For retaining this narrative tautness across the many-layered landscape of the novel -- like Beethoven's heroic 'Eroica' symphony, marshalling the panoply of sound -- Mahableshwar Sail is to be lauded.
A kunstellroman (a novel of a girl growing up), Kali Ganga tells of the world seen through the eyes of the motherless child Suman -- her childhood, her coming of age, and of her blighted love. Around this central thematic fabric are woven many textures. One of them is madness. Each character has his/her own aetiology of dis-ease, and it is no surprise that devoid of his wife, his daughters, and a sterile land, Ganesh (Suman's father) lapses into insanity and hangs himself. The childhood sweethearts Suman and Govind find that their natural love for each other is cruelly denied and decide to defy society. This is a different kind of madness -- "'Stay with me as my husband just for this day. Who knows I may be old by the time you return?' /'You're mad!'/ 'Yes. I'm mad.'"
The central preoccupations of the novel and its realistic portrayal of village life are 'personified' in the undulations of the Kali river, 'that twisted and turned lazily down the hillock gleam[ing] like a dark bride decked up in ornaments of gold.' Even the eeriness of the forest comes alive since 'when darkness falls . . . streams take on the appearance of serpents, their bodies coiled tightly around the isles.' The endless traffic of people as they crisscross the river in their boats gives the novel a momentum and signifies the passage of time. Like an amniotic sac the river swallows up its own, 'The river is just like our Kali river isn't it?' Govind remarks as the bus crosses the Zuari at Borim. The other river [Mandovi] at Panaji is also like our Kali,' responds Suman.
Kali Ganga presides over the destiny of the villages it enclasps, its malevolence drawing the ill-fated to its murky depths. What live on are the spectres of the unquiet souls, like those of the wedding party who perished when their boat capsized, and whose memory is kept alive by the boatman: 'Now on the third night after that of the full moon every month you can hear the lapping of waves and the sound of musical instruments as the bride and groom rise from the water. . . The bride is beautiful as a goddess in human form, their faces glow like gems and they make love on the rock by the river all night.' The cover design based on a painting by Harshada Kerkar beautifully captures the seething river in the background with Manjula and Suman in the foreground, overawed by the intensity of nature.
The old ways of the village and its certainties in Kali Ganga are inadequate to sustain life anymore. Salu ajji bemoans the fact that her traditional remedies are unwanted: 'Come with me to the forest, I'll teach you to recognize roots and leaves, I say, but no one comes. Today you pay fat sums to these doctors and they give you pills.' Education too has a part to play in the rupture of childhood bonds, or so thinks Suman: '"Govind I am going to throw all your books into the Kali river tomorrow' /'Why?' /'When a man gets educated, he leaves the village and goes far away to earn money.'" The bizarre episode of the ghadi trying to cure Ganesh by commanding the spirits and, in the process,caning Ganesh (while the vaddo watches) is a pointer to the ignorance about healing and cure.
A deep sense of loss pervades the novel. Unable to bear the loss of her husband and life with her in-laws, Shobha ends it all. Ophelia-like,''[her] body [floats] on the water like a lily that had been tossed in. Her white sari and her hair floated on the surface, her arms were outstretched as though to embrace someone.' When Manjul dies as she is being carried to Karwar for treatment, Suman mourns for her sister in cosmic lament: 'Everyone froze. Suman screamed . . . a long piercing shriek that shook the earth and rent the skies and filtered through the trees and palm fronds as is settled on the river's waves.'
Burial rites -- or the lack of them -- recall the dilemma in U.R. Ananthamurthy's novel Samskara. In the back and forth that takes place between the village and the in-laws Manjul's body lies untended. 'A daughter-in-law from your clan lies there dead . . . What are you waiting for? Who will cremate that body?' demands Pandhari. However, when Ganesh dies, the people of the vaddo sweep into action and prepare to cremate the body and stave off handing it over to the police.
Kali Ganga has affinities to Pundalik Naik's Acchev published a year earlier. In both novels one comes face to face with aspects of human courage in the face, seemingly, of forces beyond their control. Wider in girth, Kali Ganga's claim to readibility rests as Damodar Mauzo points out, in his perceptive introduction to the novel on four main pillars. These are i) The description of nature in all its moods ii) References to superstitions, religious beliefs and folk practices still seen in the region iii) Portrayal of characters with all their virtues and shortcomings and iv) The well-paced plot. Mauzo also deftly sketches the literary history of Konkani from the poet-saint Namdev's Gaulan Geet in Konkani in the 14th century down to Sail's offering. A helpful glossary enables those uninitiated in Hindu ceremonies and traditions to key into the novel. In its lucid prose, Vidya Pai has retained the flavour of the nuances of Konkani and often even the lilt of its cadence.
Kali Ganga is essential reading for an insight into the syntax of existence and the travails of lived reality. As a novel it succeeds, as it lifts itself beyond its locale to address the central questions of human existence, viz. life, love and death and of a questing for happiness which is often denied. Like the march funebre (funeral march) of the Eroica symphony is one of the most arresting of the four movements, it is the novelistic thanatos (death instinct) which gives the book its peculiar vigour and unifies it into a coda of existence.
Published in Goa Today, Panjim, Goa 2003. Pix. NBT. Book Review of Kali Ganga (National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2003).Translated from the Konkani by Vidya Pai. ISBN 8123738579. pp 254. Rs. 80. PB.