Nirmala Govindarajan’s novel ‘Taboo’, speaks of love, lust, discrimination and the self, at a time when the world is battling to box people into singular identities.

We spend much too much time asking ourselves who we are, and investing far lesser in actually answering that exact question.
Who are we, if not the scattered remains of everything we were and want to be? Nirmala Govindarajan’s novel Taboo, shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020, and nominated for the Atta Galatta Banaglore Literature Festival Awards 2020, is a piercing narrative that uncomfortably reminds us of our obsession with a singular identity for ourselves, and our need that everyone else too, share the mundane sentiment of it.
Taboo, released in December 2019, at a point when identities were just about being tossed around in the wok of right wing politics, deals with identity like its soup. The novel takes shape and form from Spain to Sri Lanka, and finds itself afoot in Tamil Nadu, peppered with your capital (istic) flavour. What I found incredibly freeing is how unapologetically it did it, as though it was supper time banter.
The story revolves around the scandalously delicious character of the Lady with the Slender Hands, who traverses people, illegal trades and regions to map her back to who she was, so she can finally claim the freedom of who she wants to be. The beauty is that the Lady with the Slender Hands is and wants to be not just one person – an identity that is lost in this maze of sex trade – but proudly own the different versions she has become over time: sex worker, lover, traveller, mother, child, activist, et al. It’s a very matter of fact reminder that no one, not the reader or the writer, is just one person. In trying to speak of poverty, female oppression, and a very bottom-over-head education system, Nirmala ends up criticizing more than just that; she takes a quiet leap into how we have decided to live life in itself.
There is a chilling clarity to chaos, a calculative progress to confusion in Taboo. We are, in this travel with the Lady with the Slender Hands reclaiming what’s her own, introduced to a multitude of characters who play their own theatrical roles in the ebb of the story. Despite their own journeys, and parallel lives of secrecy, disownment, and bastardly existence, the characters all tie back neatly to the Lady. Which makes sense when you think of it in retrospect, because it is the resolve of the protagonist which changes the course of what is to become of every single one of them – right from her lover, to her erstwhile ‘customer’ the Minister for Shelters, to even the huskiest ‘phusphus mongers’, and the most unwitting railway coach full of elite parents (who are I suspect, placed in the story almost to remind themselves of their own futility).

Title: Taboo
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Picador India, Pan Macmillan India
Price: Rs. 399

I bring in theatre, because that’s how the story is told – in its own fascination of dramatic entries, exits, and existence; music in prose and beat to poetry, grabbing onto every subliminal texture the reader could possibly invest into reading, imagining. Very few can do what Nirmala has done in telling a rather socio-political tale by making the grim, grandiose. Wanting to finish the 300 pager over a couple of quarantined days is no more an option when stories are crafted this way – you just do!
I want to take a moment here to discuss Taboo’s way of dealing with politics around language, which I think is immensely important. There is Spanish, bits of Sinhalese, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, English, Marathi, and they all come up where they have to – organically. The gapasapa mongers and the phusphus mongers are all the same, but just about divided by their imaginary borders. The entire story is around a sex worker, and not once are they having sex or fucking – they are unabashedly ‘making love’. There is passion to person in this story, even the dirtiest of characters, can be tasted for their vileness as you read about their salivating lust. It is also the very same politics of language that becomes key to this tossing of identities – who is who and from where? How do they know and understand and think in all of these languages? It comes knocking at you on how integral to emote, one’s language is. And amidst an entire real-time furore over a national one, the occurrence of such a thought is bemusing, simply because of how palpable the reality of it remains.
The imagery of the Lady with the Slender Hands and her cracked red glass bangles, speeding across the luscious forests of unknown lands, bursts your imagination at the seams. This isn’t a Marquez story of morbid existentialism, you already know. This is the story of a woman (or should I take the liberty of saying, women?), who has already seduced you with her strength. And strong women don’t exactly do with sad endings, do they? Characteristic to Nirmala’s style of writing, even in her previous novel Hunger’s Daughters, the ending crescendos into dramatic revelations (and really, if you are imagining enough, you are sensing the drum rolls right) and mysticism, to a positive, all-is-well, victory to the deserving kind of way. Which in today’s much telling global political scenario, is good hope to keep, for a slowly dying morale to democracy. And I spy that is the intent of the novel all along – to go with a sense of rebellion which will end in nothing but a win.
At a time when scraps of papers are giving permission to life in a nation, Nirmala’s book speaks of people who live on footpaths, for years, away from their own homes, bereft of their freedom to exist. It speaks of female power, the way the protests across the country has witnessed. It speaks of identity as though a farcical totem to simplicity, while also establishing it as something that transcends it. And that narrative is important, especially now when decisions seem to be taken on the advice of magic eight-balls, and populations are calculated in numbers that are far off from the reality of lakhs of people, who live unknown of their own last names, unmapped for decades.
For so many of those ‘fellows of the footpath’, they have known home to be anywhere and everywhere that remotely reminds them of belonging – and Taboo, is all about that. It’s about who and what you call home.