By Bhaswati Ghosh
RIVERS RUN BACK
Joyce Yarrow and Arindam Roy
In moving away from my home country some six years ago, I’ve found myself nesting in quite a few places across North America – each with its rewards and annoyances. Of these, at least a few have felt like home. And yet, when I think of my hometown of the previous three decades, I remember many instances when it didn’t feel like home. This paradox is often at the heart of most novels negotiating the East-West binary. Rivers Run Back, co-authored by American mystery writer and Pushcart Prize nominee, Joyce Yarrow, and Indian journalist, Arindam Roy, is one such book. Belongingness and separation, flying away and homing pulls, the urge to remain rooted and the need to break free – are all explored in the telling of this tale of intrigue and introspection.
The novel’s three primary characters – two protagonists and an antagonist – establish the topography of the novel’s narrative arc early on. Shankar Chatterjee is the well-heeled hero who, by the strength of his inheritance and merit, gets to design a career that suits his academic curiosity and easygoing temperament. The same is true of Marilyn Benson, the female protagonist – except for the inner demons she needs to vanquish before she can realize her optimum potential. Pitted against these two central characters is Narsimha Sastry, who, deprived of familial support and lovingness, is forced into an existence that could only be perceived as depraved by the larger world, but is little more than a survival mechanism for Narsimha himself.
In Rivers Run Back, the reader journeys through several temporal locations – Allahabad, Shamirpet, Dubai, New York, and Vancouver. But this isn’t a voyage limited to space and time; it is one that drills down into the inner recesses of the characters’ mind – troubling and lucid, horror-induced and knot-resolving. If Shankar Chatterjee, a professor of anthropology represents the calm, poetry-loving sort who can keep it all together, Marilyn, his girlfriend-turned-wife is the mercurial artist, the intensity of whose inner smouldering embers threaten to sear the fragile frame of her mind. Even more interesting is the etching of Narsimha’s character. For all his perverse morality, accentuated by deception and decapitation, Narsimha’s psychological turmoil and acute sense of loss question the “civilized society,” which, in ostracizing the likes of him, ends up pushing them out of its very perimetres.
Intersections are inevitable for the interconnected characters of this river-like saga, flowing through generations and across continents. Marilyn leaves her family in Vancouver to visit India in her search for her sense of self and finds a tender bond with Gargi, her mother-in-law, while Narsimha travels to the West to take his underworld career to the next level and falls in love with Leela, Marilyn and Shankar’s impulsive younger daughter. But the one character who takes this crisscrossing, and with it, the narrative dynamic to a whole new level is Dusty aka Dushyanta Sharma. Making a brief, cameo-like appearance only in the last one-third of the book, Dusty blew me away with his afterlife monologues. The only parts where the authors use a first-person voice, breaking away from the novel’s taut third-person limited point of view, these monologues take the reader inside the messed-up, webbed mind of a drug-addict. Despite losing out on opportunities to lead a regular, socially-acceptable life, Dusty is not a loser. On the contrary, by coming in contact with Padma, the angelic older daughter of Shankar and Marilyn, who’s on a mission to rehabilitate lost junkies, he starts brimming with a wellspring of love and light. His narratives exude an affection for Padma that is both passionate and protective; yet his voice bursts with the humour and argot characteristic of his haphazard street life.
…After the first few days, I never thought of Padma that way. I admit her looks drew me in, along with everyone else who came in contact with her. Padma’s ‘package’ –what you mortals would call her body – was a man-magnet, so attractive it was painful. But what you have to understand is that once you were drawn inside her aura…well all I can say is that I split open like a ripe papaya. The seeds of my soul were exposed and I could feel those that were not irreparably damaged begin to sprout in Padma’s sun.
Given that Yarrow is a sure-handed mystery writer with several titles to her credit, the dexterity with which the plot has been woven is to be expected. But this collaborative work of Yarrow, a Seattle-based Indophile and Roy, her Allahabad-based journalist co-author engages the reader not only with twists of the plotline but its nimble prose that sings with metaphors drawn from Indian mythology and art, poetry, and spiritual quests.
Despite a few clichés – India as the panacea for mental health issues, Padma’s reliance on bhajans to bring hopheads back on track; and plot holes – Narsimha’s mother Tulasi’s brief appearance only to vanish without a trace, Shankar’s inexplicable turning-away from his homeland as well as from the philanthropic disposition of his youth, Rivers Run Back impresses with its pace of a pot-boiler and crispness of a riveting and tenderly-humourous narrative.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. She is an Editor-at-Large at Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.
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