Book Review – Hushed Voices

Looking Glass Self

Munmun Ghosh’s 39 voices emerge in flesh and blood and the characters are intricately linked to each other by both technique and plot. By Deeya Nayar-Nambiar

“Waiting for the 6.10 local,” a typical conversation that most of the Mumbaikars share at the railway station while waiting for the train that’ll take them home. Delve a little into the minds of these people and you find small time migrants who came to the city with dreams but are still struggling. The lifeline of Mumbai, these trains have become the part of every life. Constantly on move, the locomotive becomes a metaphor and like its travellers who are on the move come what may, takes them along with it. This is a chance encounter with people from different strata of society, whether it is the figure conscious college going girl or a suspicious housewife. So was it for Munmun Ghosh who found a novel way of addressing these mundane journeys as looking glass self of many a lives through her first novel Hushed Voices.

Sita, who is undergoing treatment for infertility, firmly believes in Nature’s rule that there’s nothing more important for a woman than bearing children. Kalakaar boards a long distance train with the desire to pursue his passion of writing lyrics. The voices include that of Vaishali, whose nubile, mentally challenged daughter Sonali has suddenly turned violent; a gangster’s new recruit nervous about executing his first professional murder; the domestic help who visits a baba to seek blessing for her husband but ends up praying for her mistress’s mute daughter Manisha; twice married yet a destitute, the woman who turns to prostitution and still dreams of marriage; and an aged, ailing father Jankibabu, who is rejected by his children and aspires to make his home in a hospital.

They are not alone. One gets a glimpse into the lives of those belonging largely to the underprivileged section of society who are chasing their dreams and innermost desires, trying to make it big in the city. Of course the journey is not as rosy as depicted in films or as smooth as it reflects from the lives of the corporate and the privileged few. It’s the story of the commoners, their deep anguish and pain, their strengths and underlying optimism that keeps them on the periphery. Interestingly, Munmun’s linear chain of monologues comes full circle with the first speaker, Sita, reappearing with the last voice. Along with the train, the hospital also shares an equal role.

Unlike RK Laxman’s famous silent spectator, the Common Man, Munmun’s 39 voices emerge in flesh and blood and the characters are intricately linked to each other by both technique and plot. The book moves forward through chains of stories leading to a definitive climax. The first person narrative makes the character more authentic. Also, the writer has taken into account the various scenarios in Mumbai’s life – the red light area, people waiting for water supply, the riots and a woman who was robbed while being pushed out of the running train. As if reading short stories from the little nuances of life, Munmun as a storyteller reminds one of Jhumpa Lahri and her Pulitzer winning fictional work the Interpreter Of Maladies. Though her characters were not interlinked, everybody had a story to tell. Munmun, on the other hand, is “inescapable, interlocking of human destinies,” which form the basis of human compassion. To quote her character Kalakaar, “I grasp my pen and gaze at the anonymous knots of people forming and disappearing like bubbles in front of me.”

Hushed Voices make an interesting read as most of us can associate to a couple of characters who we may have come across at some point of life, struggling to find a space for themselves and fighting with their insecurities and helplessness. Indeed “Life was full of unexpected, magical spins…”

Published in BTW, Chitralekha Group, June 2007

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