D. Devika Bai writes with too much history and too little intimacy
By Wendy Gan
The Flight of the Swans
The historical family saga at its best is a Janus-faced beast. It needs an imaginative breadth that will sweep the reader up, providing her with a bird's eye view of the unfolding of a grand, distant history. Yet, there must be too that telescopic pull towards the ordinary, the neglected, and seemingly insignificant. We need to see within the larger drama of nation and change that small, barely visible glance between a husband and wife that speaks tellingly of love and loss. From the extra wide shot to the close-up and back again. It's a balancing act that demands great sensitivity to the ways ordinary family life – love, marriage, childbirth – respond to the promptings of History while also constituting a sense of the "everyday".
The Flight of the Swans valiantly attempts to yoke together both notions of history, though the coupling is often an unbalanced one. Following the Bhonsle family from the sacking of their native Killa by the British to their adventures in the new multicultural world of Malaya, this ambitious novel struggles to integrate historical information, myth and the personal stories of the members of the Bhonsle family.
The opening chapters are indicative of the problem at hand. D. Devika Bai with some success manages to convey the devastation suffered by Killa's army at the hands of the British forces. This opening master shot of history on the march is given a human focus in Ramdas, a farmer turned soldier in defence of his beloved Killa and its leader – the beautiful and independent Rani, a figure revered almost as a goddess. We meet him in the first chapter, a survivor of the bitter battle, on a mission to kill the traitor who betrayed Killa to the British. It is a colourful and intriguing beginning with the potential for a difficult colonial history to be revealed through the story of one ordinary man. But come the next chapter, all narrative takes a back seat, as a wealth of historical and mythical information about Killa and her Rani must first be disseminated. This stark shift in gears indicates a failure to find a way to dissolve fact and fiction into one. Instead, like a mix of oil and water, the two discourses, despite Bai's best efforts, continually separate.
Bai has obviously done her historical research and one fears that the temptation to ensure such work was not wasted led to her decision to include as much of it as she could. The detail is admittedly fascinating – I think I could probably plant rice now from the descriptions in the novel – but the danger is that of stasis. Overwhelmed by intricate details of rice farming and descriptions of village festivals, the plot loses its narrative impetus when the Bhonsles arrive in the relative safety of Champakapur, and becomes a shrine to facts. To be fair, Bai drops little dark clues about the future of the Bhonsle family in an attempt to remind us that the plot is moving somewhere despite this rural pause, but for less patient readers, we are eager for the plot to unfold faster and the proliferation of facts and details prompts us to ask: what do all these facts have to do with the story at hand? It's a charming and informative picture of a farming community and its ways, but this is not a scholarly record of agricultural life, nor a tale of pastoral pleasures. This is a historical family saga, and as one is inundated with facts on how the family farmed and lived, one longs for greater intimacy with the inner lives of the family members, less history, and more of the joys and tensions that make family life a microcosm of society. One longs for more conflict at both levels of history. All these tend to be agonisingly elided.
When drought moves the Bhonsle family away from Champakapur (some action at last!), there is no exploration of the desperation that drives Ramdas and his father to make the horrific decisions they had to make to enable their family's survival. When we next meet Ramdas, he is already a broken man, but we have had no chance to suffer with him, no chance to experience and mourn the breaking of a proud, noble man.
There is a shortage of intimate close-ups in the first part of The Flight of the Swans. The novel documents its characters at a decorous distance, as if afraid to get too close. Parts two and three, with their attempt at first person narration, help remedy this rather aloof approach to characterisation and for once we have a chance to enter the inner worlds of a few chosen characters. It's a welcome shift and one wishes that Bai had done more of this. She has a cast of interesting characters who could have been more fully fleshed-out. The relationship between Ramdas' sons Nilkanth and Madhav, for example, is ripe for greater elaboration. As different as chalk and cheese, what nonetheless still holds these two men together? How did the handsome, charismatic but villainous Nilkanth come to accept his dreamy but determined brother's success in winning the love of the beautiful Tara, a courtesan desired by both men? What could have prompted the violent Nilkanth to come to Madhav's rescue as the small-minded neighbourhood turns on the latter for marrying Tara? The novel intimates that blood ties are stronger than rivalry in love, but surely there is more to uncover, more murky motives to comb through and delineate.
But Malaya is waiting in the wings and no lingering on characters is allowed! For a South-east Asian reader, this section of the novel is an interesting recount of a history of South Asian migration to Malaya. We learn that many who took that journey were trying to escape from persecution and a lack of food and jobs. Malaya was their promised land, and the descriptions of the Bhonsle family's wonder at the plenitude and rich cultural diversity of this new world is charming, if a little rose-tinted.
We seem to have reached utopia, and with the plot in danger of grinding to a halt, Bai quickly throws a spanner in the works – a much longed-for child is born blind, casting a shadow over the Bhonsle family's happiness in Malaya. The gears shift once more and the rest of the novel becomes a quest for a cure for Arundhati's blindness. Arundhati is etched with some success and is one of the most poetic characters in the novel. However, the search for a cure for her blindness never quite feels urgent nor real enough. One always hears the gears creaking away. Yes, her blindness is a means of keeping the plot moving. Yes, it's a way for part of the Bhonsle family to return to India as a demonstration of the desire to return home, for despite the advantages of Malaya, Malaya is never quite home. Yes, it's a method of inflicting the Bhonsle family with tragedy. But do we actually care for Arundhati and identify with her father Madhav's desperation to give her sight?
There had not been quite enough work done to draw readers emotionally into the world of the characters, and as a result, the twist at the end of the novel fails to move readers as much as it should. There is no doubt that Bai has put in an immense effort in working out the mechanics of her family saga, but somewhere along the way, the magic was lost. The great white swan, which appears sporadically throughout the novel as an inspiring symbol of the eternal spirit of Killa's renowned Rani, also eventually reflects this flatness. When the Bhonsle family, on a return visit to Killa, discover a lone white swan swimming in a palace pond and behaving as swans do, Ramdas' long-lived wife Mukta takes it as sign that Rani has returned to her beloved Killa, while her daughter-in-law and grandchildren nod dumbly in agreement, "not wanting to hurt Mukta."
Mukta still has the ability to live in the realm of magic and myth, while her descendants are far more dreary and realistic. As one reaches the end of The Flight of the Swans, one can't help feeling less like Mukta and more like her cynical family members for whom a swan is merely a swan.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005