Divided countries, countless victims
A medley of characters plays out their predestined roles in this attention-grabbing book. It is a candid, first person narration of people's lives and attitudes by a young woman, Ira, whose name we get to know just a few pages before the ending (finally revealed to us in a dramatic way). The backdrop is the partition of India and the communal riots that erupt over the years.
Ira is the offspring of two people who are very different in nature, but who are devoted to each other. The mother had "taken too little from life", and the father had "always taken too much". As Ira grows up, her temperament is moulded by the traits of both parents. Hence, on the one hand, she is convinced that happiness can be very evasive and deceptive with some people (like her mother and herself), and, on the other, cannot deny that she has her father's ability to "laugh and sing through deprivations".
Perfect Eight is the name given to a road in Ambrosa, Kangra, a road that can testify to many significant events and the changes brought about by these events.
Ira's mother comes to Kanpur from Lahore as a child, leaving behind much comfort and many good things. The partition of the Indo-Pak subcontinent makes her a refugee and turns her life topsy-turvy. As things become harder, she begins to "fear nothing but happiness". She believes that happiness is a "thorny, tricky animal, wiggling in your arms, threatening to wound you and get away". Good times, however, come with her marriage to Veeren, with whom she tentatively builds a life, in an Assamese cantonment and in Patiala, which, of course, has its rough days. Veeren, a lover of ghazals, has "no respect for tears", and a "spirit that did not welcome intrusion". Ira has inherited these qualities.
The story of Ira's mother's life is the story of countless victims of the division and cruel separation of countries. The appealing thing about this story is that it is narrated very realistically, yet emotionally. This woman who can "smell grief before it strikes", finds snatches of happiness because of her loving husband and daughter. They all see hard days, as well as, good ones, as they go through what seems like a tentative existence.
Then we have Ira's story. As a child, she is insecure and often unreasonable, as she suffers from a genetic despondency. She finds peace and joy in Annaville, a tea-estate in Ambrosa, which she visits occasionally. To her, this place is a symbol of beauty, love and hope; it is here she first meets Samir, the handsome, confident, pampered son of her mother's friend, Anna, and her doting husband, Inder. Ira's childish infatuation for Samir gradually develops into an overpowering, consuming passion. This feeling is apparently unreciprocated, though there seems to be an inexplicable chemistry between them. Theirs is a very strange love story, if it can be called that. Samir never wanted anything that was given to him and Ira turns away from everything that she wants and doesn't take what is hers. Her father taught her to want everything from life, and if she was offered less, she didn't want it. She wanted it all or nothing. She discovers how hard it is to "disown love that runs like poison in her blood". She knows she can never get Samir and that is "the deepest wound of all".
In places, the narration is hard-hitting, with very vivid descriptions and incisive observations. Moudgil personifies everything in her unique, gripping style. Perhaps that is what makes the book a breathing, palpable entity. In addition to enjoying the story, one can get pleasure from just reading this writer's chosen words and the way she strings them together.
The parallel plot is about communal riots. Everyone knew that "Punjabis are not Hindus or Sikhs, They are Punjabis". Sadly, the two communities start mistrusting and hating each other, tragic incidents like the killing of Mahatma Gandhi, the storming of the Golden Temple, the knocking down of the Babri Mosque, the assassination of the country's Prime Minister, spark off mindless, unbridled violence. Terrorism spreads like wildfire, and comes to be known as "militancy".
The horrifying incidents which are a culmination of religious intolerance are blown up to produce a black, blind hatred. The seeds of suspicion and disunity have been sown and continue to be felt; surprisingly, so does the recognition and acknowledgement of kindred souls, regardless of which faith they profess.
Ira's father's sudden death hurls her into her sphere of despair again, but because she wants to be like him, she bounces back. When her mother wonders what they will do without Veeren, Ira confidently says "Live". Then the two of them proceed to do just that live against the odds. Caught in the web of an innate pessimism (a legacy from her mother), and an indomitable will to live (inherited from her father), she struggles to make the latter win. This struggle is not new to the mother and daughter, for even in the midst of their happiest moments, "bound by their common fear of happiness, they had felt something lurking at their heels".
Accounts of how people cope with their losses and lacks, tug at our heartstrings: "Her mother found ways to trap joy in little crevices of her life"; "befriended her house, a monument to wistfulness"; Sunny was my twin scar and we smelt each other's lacks and bonded".
A turning point in the story is when the floods come. It appears to "wash away the remaining dregs of mistrust" as Hindus and Sikhs become one again in the face of this natural disaster. Unfortunately, this is a temporary phase.
Ira has an arranged marriage with Gautam and moves to Bangalore. She has a fairly good life for a while; then the two start growing apart. Another riot breaks out. Ira feels haunted by the happenings related to this riot, and feeling at the end of her tether, tries to kill herself. She survives, but her marriage does not. Her father's soul comes to her and they have a conversation which helps Ira to think clearly and courageously again. Among other poignant things, he tells her that one cannot escape from life, that pain, sorrows, deprivations come and go, and that it is unwise to keep remembering the sad things, for that eventually wrecks one. He says the only thing that does not change or perish is the fact that one had loved and been loved.
Ira goes to Ambrosa and what ensues there may seem like an unexpected outcome, but it is in keeping with the characters and the story so far. Ira finally comes to terms with what is fated and feels liberated.
The conclusions of both plots seem to leave a question suspended: "What next?"