Seldom has a novel gripped my attention and held it for weeks. I must confess that I generally read fewer novels. Short stories, especially in Urdu, are my preferred reading material. This spring, as I am based in New Delhi, I decided to read as many novels as I possibly could and started by browsing the crowded shelves of my father’s library. He recommended a few, even pulled some out for me. Chini Kothi caught my eye in the small pile. I had met the author, Siddique Alam, in Kolkata when I accompanied my father on a literature festival tour some years ago. Alam sahib gifted me his short story collection and a novel Charnock Ki Kishti. The thick novel is entirely in blank verse. I flipped through it, but didn’t get around to reading it. Maybe the guilt weighed on me, so I was even more determined to read Chini Kothi.

Alam is from a village in West Bengal; he made Kolkata his home after he arrived there on a rainy evening in 1983. Kolkata engulfed him from the minute he got off the bus. He felt surrounded by an ocean of darkness and some lights, one lone being amid the thousands of people who land in Kolkata every day. But he needed to find himself in this flood of inhabitants. It was a search that led him to write about Kolkata, about his love and pain-filled relationship with the city. Eventually the city’s imposing skyline, its tall leafy trees, the birds, animals and crowded streets embraced him, comforted him, made him feel a part of this living land.

Alam’s canvas is both vast and complex. What distinguishes his storytelling is the simultaneity of conscious and subconscious experience. He asks, where is the line or boundary that separates dreams from reality? Does it even exist? He says that it is possible to carry dreams into our waking life. The novel Chini Kothi does exactly this. It fudges the awareness between the conscious and subconscious by invoking the past in the form of dreams, or perhaps stream of consciousness, and synchronising them with the present.

The anchor of the novel — and, by extension, reality — is a mansion called Chini Kothi whose occupants are never seen. It sits on a large expanse of land accessed through a tall gate enjambed in stone pillars. From the right pillar hangs a lamp suspended from a bracket. The intriguing aspect of this mansion is that it appears to be the same to the narrator whether dreaming or wide awake.

The novel’s prelude is a dream which the narrator sees over and again. It is a dream within a state of awareness; a state of being in which one can see oneself in a dream. The narrator is a successful lawyer who handles criminal cases. He views crime dispassionately and is only interested in saving his client. One of his clients is a child rapist. Another is an attractive, widowed woman whose teenaged son resents the lawyer’s interest in his mother. In between are threaded stories of a retired policeman with a fascination for cats, an acquitted murderer and a clerk with a suicidal son. Their stories are woven together to create an intense web that captures the reader, but gets suffocating with its intricacies. The plot is a maze that one negotiates in parts.

Alam’s canvas is both vast and complex. What distinguishes his storytelling is the simultaneity of conscious and subconscious experience. He asks, where is the line or boundary that separates dreams from reality?

A dried riverbed forms the backdrop. For most of the year, the river is dry and can be crossed either on foot or in a rickshaw. During monsoons it gets swollen with water that carries away the filth accumulated in its path. The narrator crosses the riverbed to meet with his client, the widow. The dried riverbed is where the narrator is ambushed and badly beaten up by the widow’s teenaged boy and his accomplices. Yet through an emotional twist he agrees to defend the boy and ultimately secure his release.

A remarkable feature of the novel is its poignant perspective on death: death of beloved animals, human beings, mourning. The policeman’s cat, lovingly named Payal, goes missing. The lonely policeman searches for days and finds her living in a run-down home near a railway line. A child has adopted Payal and named her Pinky. Payal gets run over by a goods train. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator connects with the policeman again. It is through a thickly written suicide note that is delivered to him by a little boy who used to help the policeman. The note describes in detail the man’s curious, empathetic relationship with cats. He had adopted dozens of them, now kept safe in cages. A surrealistic sequence follows in which the cats talk with one another in the language of humans. The reader does not know where this fantastical interlude described in the suicide note will lead to. It ends with the narrator visiting the grave of the policeman with the little boy.

“Walking through bushes we reached the shade of an old banyan tree. Beneath the tree was an old, solid grave made of bricks and next to it a new mound of mud ... A large group of cats was sitting on this grave, some strolling around it. A few cats emerged from the nearby bushes and walked towards the grave; some went back into the bushes...”

The story of Payal’s death had puzzled me in the early part of the novel. Now, the symbiotic relationship between living creatures became clear through the shared pain of mourning.

Alam’s novel builds on the symbolism of the dried riverbed in myriad ways. It is a boundary between the narrator and the woman he loves; it is symbolic of his emotional state. Each time he crosses the riverbed his relationship takes a new, ominous turn.

As the novel draws to a nail biting end, the readers’ emotions are stretched to breaking point. Alam’s Afterword helps us think through the overlap between the fictional world and the so-called real world. Are they different? Alam successfully employs surrealism to access innermost experience and emotional trajectory — the heart, mind and creative process.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 22nd, 2020