18 Dec / The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
“Frailty, thy name is woman.”
“Women always have the last word.”
All manner of pithy, less-than-admirable aphorisms about women come to mind after reading Samrat Upadhyay’s recent novel; such words as shocking, disturbing, wrenching, shattering also seem quite appropriate. And in case you need another level of chillingly effective, resonating horror, choose to go audible with remarkably fluent narrator Priya Ayyar.
Didi’s life is shattered when a stranger enters her yard to reveal that her husband has been lying to her for years. While she has remained in the village caring for their two young sons, her husband – reverently referred to as Masterji – has been working in the city as a sought-after tutor, sending money home, and returning when he can. What Didi never even suspected was that her husband’s infrequent sojourns had little to do with an overcommitted schedule; rather, he’s set up house with a beautiful young wife Apsara and their son Tharun.
Armed with the revelation – and her status as the first wife – she arrives unannounced at Masterji’s city love nest with their two sons. Apsara and Tharun quickly become outsiders, and soon enough they move out into an apartment of their own. Ineffectual and cowardly, Masterji never speaks a single word of protest. Throughout the rest of the novel, will merely continue to shrink.
Chasing away her usurping competition is not enough: while Apsara slowly, agonizingly loses her grip on her sanity, Didi lures, nourishes, and seduces her stepson – before he’s even an adolescent. By the time he’s become a young adult – somehow, he’s managed to become an accomplished young businessman with serious responsibilities – Didi has luridly manipulated Tharun for more than half his life. Such horror can hardly beget anything else but tragedy and disaster … until someone can make the nightmare stop. Not surprisingly, the consequences will remain indelible.
Betrayal is not an unfamilliar subject for Upadhyay – in his novels Buddha’s Orphans and The Guru of Love, and his short stories in both The Royal Ghosts and Arresting God in Kathmandu – the philandering spouse looms large. But all pale in comparison to Didi, a woman of substantial proportions, garish make-up, illegal, insatiable appetites; while she might seem to be little more than a caricature, in Upadhyay’s piercing, unflinching new novel, she’s a monster too real not to be believed. Given the tragic headlines we’ve all read too often, child abuse has no bounds. Just as the ever-present prurient news cannot be ignored, the atrocities here will pull you into a maelstrom of madness and suffering. Didi’s destructive grasp frantically claws, demands … and refuses to let go.