By Narasimha Murthy
Gita Viswanath’s novel Twice It Happened tells the story of two women – Chitra Nagamma and her maternal aunt, Nagamma – of two generations belonging to the same family. The plot of the novel is divided into two sections with each section telling the story of two protagonists. The story unfolds with the death of Nagamma and the writer makes use of a deft narrative technique in telling the story of Nagamma through Jyothi, who receives letters from Chitra about her life.
Nagamma was born in Gajulpur in a traditional orthodox Brahmin family and was married at a young age to a man from Bangalore. Her marriage was delayed at a time when child marriage was in practice in the early 1930s. Her sister Jayamma was married at a very early age and her life at the in-laws was not a happy one. Hence, the elders decided to be careful with Nagamma’s marriage. The very thought of marriage gave her goose bumps. There was no choice for the girls of that time, which Nagamma herself claims. Nagamma gave birth to two children – a boy and a girl.
Nagamma’s life goes for a toss when she visits her father-in-law’s brother, Peddappa who lives in a village, with her husband soon after the marriage. In a moment of close proximity, she willingly surrenders herself to Peddappa, as if it were in a trance. This is how the author describes Nagamma’s thoughts very delicately: “grand ethical questions didn’t enter my mind.” She acts pragmatically as she unites with her husband on the same night, even as she pities him, “I felt a surge of pity rising within me for this dull, boring but also steadfast, dependable man.”
She never felt guilty for the actions, till the death of her daughter, Lalitha. In a moment of exasperation, she wonders if it is a consequence of her actions, “Govinda, what have I done?” She is shocked to learn that her husband was aware of the incident as his uncle was known for his promiscuous life. He also tells her about it at his death bed. Nagamma’s reaction is unexpected as she realizes that life must go on with all this and she feels an unconditional love at this disclosure: “What I had called duty all along transformed unknowingly into warmth of love, a love that is born without fanfare, in the mundane routine of keeping two Marie biscuits next to his tumbler of coffee morning and evening…”
Chitra belongs to the next generation which is educated unlike her aunt’s generation. She is happily married for some years with an army officer. She is disappointed when her husband, a Captain in the army, is interested only in trains rather than in his newly married wife. She wants to know about him but he does not show any inclination about her emotions and feelings. She imagines him to understand her sometime in future: “I hoped he would someday in the future, understand me.” The same feeling continues even after their arrival at the army camp, until she meets Captain Aditya Sinha. Her meeting Aditya is something that she has been looking for as she describes it, “I was floating from the very nadir of consciousness…I wanted to enter unknown territory, walk along the abandoned path, dive deep in to a dark ocean, tear open my skin and rise into the skies.” Aditya overpowers her with his sweet words and actions for which she has been longing for since her marriage. She is unable to control herself when he is transferred to a distant place. She tries to console herself but in vain. With him she feels “being by myself for myself of myself; for the first time… just me, pure and simple.” This longing to be her own self drives her out of all responsibilities and she runs to him one morning, travelling along with her children, without informing about her arrival. Sridhar walks in and agrees to give divorce on the condition that he would take away the children. Chitra agrees immediately and Sridhar walks out with her daughters.
Chitra marries Aditya and their life seems to be happy for some years, until he is terminated from his regiment as it was commissioned for a short term. They come back to Bombay and life continues once again for Chitra without any fanfare, as she had expected it to be. Adi goes to the Gulf in search a job and Chitra returns to Bangalore to look after herself. She joins a Pet Care center to look after the deserted animals. Initially, she loathes her job, but slowly she begins to love the animals much more than human beings.
Chitra visits the funeral ceremony of Sridhar, who is martyred in the Kargil War. She is denied permission even to have a final look at his body. She returns again the next day but her in-laws drive her out of the house. She feels betrayed as she is not allowed to have any role to perform as a mother and ex-wife to him. She comes back to Bangalore and expresses what she feels at the death of Sridhar, “I see Sridahr and me travelling in a train… train halts – passenger gets off – but he waves. My journey continues…”
Twice It Happened is a novel with strong women characters and intelligent narration. The character ‘Nagi’ almost becomes a conscience of Jyothi, who seems not to be judgmental. The author wants her to be clinical just like Ganesha, who took down Vyasa’s dictation in the epic Mahabharatha. Jyothi is a liberated modern woman who does joints. Chitra’s character is narrated in a flashback. Parvathamma’s role is that of a desolate old lady.
There is an underlying echo of ‘death’ in the lives of all the characters in the novel, haunting the ‘living’. Nagamma is perhaps the personification of it. The author seems to present the way we adapt ourselves to normalcy after a blow of death strikes a member of the household. There is a desperation in us to forget and get on with life, which has to happen eventually.
The novel provides a vivid description of village life in which the aroma of Brahmins’ kitchen is strong. There are certain striking episodes in the novel as when the villagers are in ‘awe’ after watching the first film in a village tent. The typical village is seen suffering from an epidemic, quite a common recurrence in many post-colonial novels.
While the narration turns lethargic towards the end of the novel, Gita Viswanath’s Twice It Happened is a bold novel that keeps its readers in its thrall. The novel is a chronicle of ordinary women leading normal lives which are not glorified, but narrated in a matter of fact tone by the novelist.
Dr. Narasimha Murthy has been teaching English language and literature since 1987 in India and Africa. He currently teaches at Presidency University, Bangalore. He has a Ph.D. in South African Literature. He writes in English and Kannada.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.