"Love is like milk," says Tulsi, the narrator of KR Meera's novella The Poison of Love, at the beginning of her story. "With the passage of time, it sours, splits and becomes poison." With this chilling opening paragraph, the momentum of the tale is set, and it barely takes an hour to finish the 100-odd pages for which it runs.
The brute force of her plots, coupled with the irresistible perversity of her characters, make it easy to turn the pages of Meera's fiction. Be it Hangwoman, a 500-page tome of a novel acclaimed as a contemporary classic, or the slim The Gospel of Yudas, published last year, there is a sense of urgency in Meera's prose that is rare in any language. Those of us unable to read her in Malayalam can imagine the flavour of the original from the English translations, although the infectious energy of the original is also palpable from the intensity of her characters.
In The Poison of Love, the protagonist is Tulsi, an academically brilliant woman who graduates with "record marks" from IIT Chennai, only to surrender herself to Madhav, drawn to his chiselled good looks and charm. The attraction is mutual and strong enough for a Casanova-like man, with over two dozen exes trailing him, to want to marry a seemingly steady person like Tulsi.
Not only does Tulsi give up the promise of a bright career to elope with Madhav, she also breaks off her imminent marriage with the far more dependable Vinay, with a job in the US and a kinder prospective husband, though not as appealing as his rival. What follows thereafter is best summarised by the opening paragraph of the book: the milk of affection that is love nourishes the marriage between Tulsi and Madhav for a few years, but it turns bitter with jealousy, as Tulsi discovers her husband's inveterate philandering nature.
When we meet Tulsi at the beginning of the story, she is living in Vrindavan, among the widows who have been rejected by their families. Her head shaved, decay festering in her body, she fights with the monkeys that forage for scraps of food on the temple premises. She subsists on alms thrown at her by the pilgrims and a meagre ration of 10 grams of rice and dal and a daily allowance of ₹10 given to her by the temple trust. She becomes one of the Meera Sadhus, spiritual inheritors of the legendary Meerabai's legacy who devoted her life to Lord Krishna and would have no other man touch her.
Apart from cleaning, washing and cooking, Tulsi chants the name of Krishna, the cosmic adulterer who loved many women, much like Madhav, who bears one of His many names. Lost in the collective frenzy of prayer, Tulsi vents her pent up violence at the man who ruined her life and turned her into a monstrous mother. Inevitably, Madhav comes looking for her one day, and collapses with shock as he discovers her bedraggled, wasted frame. By this time, however, what could have been a delicious moment of revenge has passed into the darkness of loss and despair.
As we turn the last page, it's hard to align our sympathies with any one character or not to want to blame each of them for being utterly consumed by their self-destructive energies. Naturally, Tulsi's predicament affects us the most. For a woman whose academic achievements could have helped her find her feet after the end of her ruinous marriage to an undeserving man, she chooses to reinvent herself in the most horrific avatar. Her descent into black melancholy is the stuff of Greek tragedy (one is especially reminded of the venom of Euripedes' Medea), but also all too human for its vulnerability and fragility. The only thing other than death that passes all understanding, defies every logic and brings out the most irrational in people is love.
The Poison of Love, translated by Ministhy S, is published by Hamish Hamilton (128 pages, hardback, ₹299).
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