Book: Rains off a Smoky Sky: From Anurita’s Diary
Author: Dr Pritam Mandal
Plot: A young woman called Anurita searches for her place in life within a society that seems bent on holding her back.
Publisher: Notion Press
Price: ₹300 Paperback
Modern Indian fiction is booming, both in terms of authors and market. And with this comes the attempt of Indian authors to create fiction that is both contemporary and authentic. At the same time, hopefully, they pay attention to their craft: the urge to churn out writing is within many of us, but the patience to learn how to weave a story is not as common. Author Durjoy Datta spoke about this the last time I interviewed him.
Rains off a Smoky Sky: From Anurita’s Diary is certainly contemporary, in that it is written in our times and raises topics the present activism-oriented generation talks about.I don’t know how authentic it is, but given that the author is male and the narrator is female, the authenticity perhaps lies only in intention and not in practice.
And then there is the matter of craft. Rains off a Smoky Sky reads like a first draft, a manuscript that no one has edited.
The very first problem that’s hard to get around is the fact that the first-person cis female narrative has been written by a cis male author.
Did I say hard? Make it impossible. Somewhere out there, I’m sure there are male authors who do a good job of writing female voices in the first person: who do so with sensitivity, unencumbered by the male gaze. This book, unfortunately, does not have that advantage.
‘I am lying on my belly, my breasts pressed over my pillow’: repeat after me, women do not think about their own bodies like this. I mean the only thing they’re likely to think about is how uncomfortable they are with their boobs being squished in that position.
I have an author friend who, after listening to me complaining about how men write women, said, ‘Women don’t think about themselves like that. Men think about women like that!’ And that, in a nutshell, is the problem of being framed by the male gaze.
We’re so used to skirting around this framing that we don’t even notice that we’re noticing it. But this needs to stop, and boy, did I notice it in this book! It’s all-pervasive in the very characterisation of Anurita, the protagonist, her language and the way she is written.
As if the voice wasn’t problematic enough, the portrayal of sexual violence in the book is… confusing.
The protagonist experiences sexual assault around the age of sixteen. Her immediate reaction is one of simultaneous repulsion and pleasure. My immediate reaction to this was disgust: how on earth can this even be considered as a response?
But here are books that have portrayed such a response complexly and sensitively; the novel Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair mentions such an incident in the character Akhila’s story. I have also read articles by survivors who have mentioned this reaction.
However, at no point do these accounts absolve the perpetrators of their guilt, or describe the incidents as anything other than assault. Often, the issue is more to do with how oppression of sexuality leads to the idea of violence as the only means of obtaining pleasure.
In the book, the perpetrator, an uncle close to the family, is let off with no consequences.
Before the actual incident, Anurita is shown as having enjoyed the attentions of her uncle. To the credit of the author, this, in no way, is used to justify the assault: rather, it is used to heighten the point that the encounter was not only unexpected but unwelcome on Anurita’s part.
The question remains, though, that if it was, indeed, unwelcome, is her reaction consistent with this? And even if one puts that down to a particularly complex rendering of character- a rendering not supported by evidence in other parts of the novel- the uncle still assaults an underage girl who was his student and suffers no consequence for it.
This girl is frequently articulate about sexual violence faced by women. One’s own experience can be overwhelmingly difficult to deal with in spite of one’s convictions; one can choose to not raise it. But the treatment in the book is less of silence and more of omission: the plot progresses as if that incident was isolated and has no further effect on the story or on Anurita.
And yet, Anurita is shown as reacting to longed-for sexual encounters with, initially, pleasure, and then repulsion: a reversal of her earlier response.
For a survivor, this is not unusual; her emotions seem to stem from guilt and shame over that first encounter. It is only on one occasion that she initiates any contact with another person, and it does not end well.
At the end of this tangled thread, we’re (or at least I was) left with a lot of questions.
The most important being this: does this book just do a really good, complex characterisation of its protagonist, or is it merely inconsistent? Is the book realist, or escapist and only touches issues such as sexual violence superficially?
Some of these questions are answered by the book’s craft.
I’m going to be blunt here: I did not find Rains of a Smoky Sky to be particularly well written. The best I can say for it is that it tries. It tries to present the issues of a girl growing up in rural Bengal and the kind of misogyny she has to face from family as well as neighbours and strangers. It tries to deal with the issue of gendered violence. It tries to deal with the idea of an environmental crisis looming ahead. It tries to deal with causes and effects of terrorism. It even tries to deal with issues of sexuality.
But, ultimately, perhaps that is its fault: that it tries to do too many things, and those many things have not been tied together well enough to create a coherent story.
The environmentalist aspect feels forced; the feminist issues are incomplete and fraught with problematic ideas; the issue of sexuality is a mere prop in the story. There are far too many, completely unnecessary managerial speeches, most of which I skipped and which made absolutely no difference to the story. There are too many descriptions of individual dresses.
Most importantly, the narrator’s relationship with her alter-ego: her diary that she personifies, is genuinely odd.
The terms with which she refers to her seem more appropriate for a lover, and extraordinarily excessive in either case! It’s almost as though the author read The Diary of Anne Frank, noticed her referring to her diary as ‘Dearest Kitty’, and decided that this is how women must address their diaries. The editorial decision to have these passages in italics doesn’t help either. Since this relationship is the nexus of the book, it makes the reading experience a significantly uncomfortable one.
I don’t give stars. I find them a reductive system that doesn’t do justice to the labours of writing a book. But if I had to, I’d give this book one out of five.
This is not because I find it irredeemably badly written: craft can be improved upon. This is because I find it irredeemably badly edited. The responsibility of a book as a final product lies not only with the author but also with the editor. And, as I mentioned before, this book feels like a manuscript, a first draft, that no one’s edited at all.