Seema’s novel is Svera’s song
Reading a novel by an author you know personally is fraught with dangers; all the more so when the novel in question is the author’s first. So Mark Cantrell approached Seema Gill’s Svera Jang with a certain sense of trepidation. What he discovered is a beautifully crafted novel about one woman’s resilience – and the strength of the human spirit
By Seema Gill
Indigo Dreams Publishing: www.indigodreams.co.uk
Paperback (386 pages) | ISBN: 978-1-907401-14-5 | Price: £8.99
WHEN I got hold of a copy of Svera Jang by Seema Gill, I must confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the novel would suit my reading habits, but in truth I hadn’t really bought the book to read at all – I just wanted to own a copy.
Already familiar with Seema’s poetry from our mutual involvement, some years ago, in Bradford’s literary scene, I was curious about her prose, so I was motivated by something of a collector’s urge. Seema, naturally enough, was delighted to learn that I had partaken of her work: thus did she throw down the gauntlet and beg me to review her pride and joy.
Suddenly, I found myself caught in tangle of the ethical and the personal – what if I didn’t like the book? What if I thought it poorly written? A review is worthless for both potential reader and author alike, unless honestly given; likewise the truth has the capacity to hurt the author (or indeed swell their heads).
There’s a safe distance between reviewer and author when the two aren’t acquainted personally, so I suddenly found myself running the risk of slapping Seema unbidden in the face. I can’t say that I relished the prospect. So, would I dare to confront the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Yes, I dared, with misgivings. And then I started to read… and read… and read. Fate, or rather Seema’s writing, had slipped me a saving grace. All my worries evaporated as I was pulled into the story of Svera Jang and became seduced by Seema’s evocative prose. In one respect, though, I was right. The novel exists beyond my usual reading habitat, so it was an added pleasure to find my literary horizons become expanded. And, in this case at least, the grass was indeed greener on the far side of the fence.
Quite simply, Svera Jang is a beautiful book. Filled with warmth and compassion, the writing has an eloquence that speaks from the heart to convey a life-affirming story that has a resonance for us all.
Svera Jang dared me to be honest, which in a curious kind of way is what her story is all about, but it is also about much more than that. As Seema wrote: “[I]t’s a story of life.” These few words, buried deep inside the narrative, stood out as I read them for the way they innocently encapsulated the entirety of the novel.
The life in question is that of the character Svera Jang, but it is more than that, since the narrator is the older Svera. Born of the same mother’s womb, they are nevertheless separated by time and space and experience, but the older woman has the clarity – or perhaps the cloudiness – of hindsight as she undertakes a journey to reconcile Svera past with Svera present.
As much as it is about Svera’s life and times, it is also concerned with the chains of motherhood that link us all, one generation to the next, in a great flourishing tree of humanity. Motherhood, yes, and convention too, the great waves of expectation that demand we conform to half-comprehended norms and values; we are all shrouded this way, but it is women who are bound the tightest and in many ways Svera Jang is an urgent plea to shed these webs – and be true to each other and ourselves.
In that respect, though the themes of the feminine course strong throughout the novel, it is above all a book of humanity: man or women, young or old, we are all born of a mother’s womb. If this sounds philosophical to the point of becoming esoteric, then yes it is, for the book is also resplendent with a spiritual aura (but don’t mistake that as necessarily religious), as the narration makes its impassioned plea for the human soul to shine through the veils of age-old stifling custom.
Svera’s journey of self-reconciliation starts in the Punjab, India, where the young Sikh woman’s artistic spirit is already straining against the everyday expectations of culture and country. From there, she strikes out on her own, running from an arranged marriage, but her idealistic pursuit of a life lived true and of a love unbound by conventional expectations lands her in a union with a “philandering Marxist”. Worse still, he proves a wife-beating coward; the very antithesis of everything that young Svera hoped and lived and loved for.
When Svera finds herself living in Copenhagen, she perceives in Europe a land free of the stifling conformity of her homeland, and in young Peter, her blond Viking as she calls him, the very essence of the unconventional man. A Marxist, a revolutionary, he appears to stand against expectation in his desire to change the world, but poor Svera learns – too late – that Europe and her Viking are every bit as bound in expectations of conformity as her homeland.
Peter’s Marxism is little more than a confirmation of his conventionality; a twisted parody of his role as the patriarchal authority figure he would no doubt claim it dismisses. The whole revolutionary show, no matter his personal and sincerest conviction, is but a vehicle for his self-centred narcissism; the demonstration of his stoic devotion to duty and self-sacrifice but a mask to hide his selfish interests and a justification for the neglect of his young wife. The man abandons his young bride on their wedding night to attend a party meeting, surly a sign of things to come as he warps the relationship to suit his own shallow needs.
We are all the sum total of our personal and societal contradictions, Peter the Marxist might say; true enough. Equally do we all carry within us the seeds of a tangled hypocrisy, but as the young Dane matures – in flesh if not in character – alongside his put-upon wife, those Marxian contradictions slough away to leave merely the hypocrite.
The story follows the increasingly mismatched pair from Denmark, to Bradford, England, where they settle for a time. That is, until Peter's wanderlust takes him to partake of charity works in Africa. There his more base lusts see him wander in pursuit of the local women. Svera's suspicions are eventually confirmed; sex with Indian women is so predictable he sneers, compounding his wife's humiliation. To my mind, this middle-aged man, so flushed with a sense of prowess at bedding African girls half his age, thereby further compounds his wrongs with a rather racist undertone.
Indeed, though he himself may not perceive it, he reveals himself as something of a caricature of the old colonialist, albeit it in a 'progressive' guise, striding forth under the weight of the 'white man's burden' to uplift the poor 'natives'.
Ironically, Svera demonstrates a far greater patience and compassion towards Peter than does this review; but then this reviewer found in Peter's curious amalgam of political and personal flaws an echo of his dealings with many a minor figure of the Left: the same familiar arrogance, the same distortions of ideology to justify selfish preferences, the same tendency to disparage others for their own personal failings.
The recognition, for me, made him a deeply unsympathetic character, but also a strangely compelling one. Perhaps Svera felt the same compulsion; certainly, in her story she demonstrates a tremendous energy in trying to reach out and pull the lost essence of her idealistic blond Viking out of his pompous shell. Ultimately, however, Peter proves to be a lost cause.
Reading the story, it is easy to find contempt for Peter as the years pass and he reveals his inadequacies. In truth, however, he is a pitiful and pitiable creature, completely unworthy of the mother of his children, or indeed of the politics he claims to uphold. It is clear that he cannot handle the free-spirited, artistic soul he has wed. The man is crippled by his own conventionality, stunted by his conformity, and the surface radicalism of his politics is but an expression of his stagnant spirit.
Deep down, one suspects he knows this; a tiny sliver of self-awareness that provokes him to take it out on his wife, but even this pathetic man’s fists ultimately prove unable to dowse the light of Svera’s spirit. Though she is forced to endure much pain, grief and shadow in the course of the relationship, she finally manages to liberate herself and rise above Peter to “soar like a firefly” as Seema writes on the book jacket.
The subject matter might sound grim and gritty, a journey in to some kind of misery-lit, but far from it. Svera Jang is a life-affirming story, a demonstration of one woman’s indomitable spirit and determination to remain true to herself. One might also describe it as a kind of ‘coming of age’ tale, the way that the older Svera confronts herself in the mirror of introspection and memory to come to terms with her younger self, yet remain true to her youthful ideals. This is a woman not content to let herself become staid and bitter as she rediscovers the threads that bind Svera through each of her living incarnations. In that, Seema demonstrates a lesson for us all.
Seema’s writing slips seamlessly through a number of narrative approaches. The story doesn’t simply interweave the contemporary with flashbacks of her earlier life, but slides back and forth along her timeline with graceful ease. At times, the prose slips into a delightful magical realism and Seema’s writing is lyrical whether Svera narrates herself, or whether the story slips into the observations of ghosts or even the house in which she dwells. They all take a turn in revealing Svera’s story.
An unusual approach this might be, but it conjures up a beautiful and at times dream-like quality that never loses its roots in the real. This is very much a reflection of Seema’s incarnation as a visual artist and poet, almost painting her story with the palette of her colourful language. Indeed, her prose is imbued with the living spirit of poetry, with its ebb and flow of its cadence, the rhythm lively with the eloquence of human speech in full flow.
“Admirers of Seema Gill’s poetry will not be disappointed by her first novel,” said Bill Broady, quoted on the cover. “Most poets damp down the fires when they venture into prose but she has gone for a full-on conflagration. Language is stretched to its breaking point – and often beyond – in its swoopings between the rhapsodic and the aggrieved.”
When it comes to stretching language to its breaking point, however, I must disagree with Broady: oh no, Seema shows herself too subtly aware of the malleability of her metal as she shapes the story into the fine filigree of its narrative strands, weaving them into the delicate sculpture of her living language, until with a gentle breath she stirs it to vibrate in a mellifluous melody.
For all of its poetic verve, don’t be fooled by an assumption of indulgence, of purpled-flowers blossoming to tangle and choke the pace of Seema’s prose; she stays in control of this emotive and emotional journey to create both a compelling drama and a celebration of the human spirit.
This is a brave book, not least for the poetic expression the author uses, but also because Svera is none other than Seema herself. Fictionalised though it is, she reveals much of herself to the critical eye of her audience – and herself – as she airs her own struggle – her jang – to rise above an abusive relationship and reconnect with her self. The novel is as much Seema’s voyage of self-re-discovery – a mirror to her life – as it is Svera's and she invites us to keep her company along the way.
“So my mirror came to name itself Svera, meaning the dawn – an awakening – and Jang, meaning the battle. Svera Jang. I am not her now, but she was once me,” writes Seema as she embarks upon the novel.
“The more I wrote, the more I realised Svera was constantly fighting and searching for something. Hope? Longing? Desire? Or was it the freedom from those illusions? Hang on, hope is not an illusion. Or is it? I know I was searching for a place, a land where freedom prevails in its real sense. One thing was sure, it was a universal search. It started. It ended. It started and ended. It started over and over again. And again. A never-ending story of life, mapped out on the face of every breathing soul. The search for that total freedom of mind was her dream and the dream was her search.”
That’s something we can all share, if – like Svera, like Seema – we dare to look back at the path we trod and to face ourselves in the mirror. It’s called being human. It’s called life. And in this literary incarnation, it’s called Svera Jang.
12 September 2011
Copyright © September 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Friday, 30 September 2011
Wednesday, 14 September 2011
MY HOSE SITS ON THE HILL My house sits on the hill overlooking the famous Cliffe cemetery. A wonderful place of rest, resplendent in reflected glory, where obelisks point high to a hopeful God and the bones of merchants lay in tombs fit for Caesar. Where undergrowth spreads gothically in the unexplored parts. Vast expanses of bramble bushes arched over like cathedrals providing the perfect hiding places for insects, spiders, small animals and dope dealers, like the underworld spreading through this city of intolerance and separation, of fear and suspicion, of words that should not be spoken, of issues that cannot be raised for fear of that midnight knock, of segmented ghost towns which lie cheek by jowl with the net curtain clipped accents, of gypsies and thieves, of long gone Germans and Irish men who rolled up their sleeves and dug the canals, those flat, straight works of art, of Asian nightshift workers who toiled on dangerous machines, of penniless Ugandans who dragged themselves up by their bootstraps, of fading trolley lines and fumed up bottlenecks, of sixties white elephants and exotic back alleys. This city has it all. It’s where they burnt the book against the words of the Prophet where cappuccino drinkers admire Hockney, where Charlotte and Emily penned their rugged books on moors that look down from their parallel world. This city where I continue my search. Why here? For what reason? For one, it was here that the ghosts would depart from me. (from my book Svera Jang)
Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Sunday, 11 September 2011
PEACE BECOMES A RARE COMMODITY Autumn is gently pushing it's way through the fog and the city lights bathe in majestic light. I have been awake all this time. I lay awake under the quilt of moonlit nights over my head. I lay awake when the pale sunlight gently peels my outer shell, watching over this city, as I watch over Svera. I have been on my guard all this time. I have to be awake. To watch. A house like me who has a ‘spirit’. The residues of a storm rattled the neon signs of cultural harmony in Bradford. Svera stood in front of this broad window. In the distance, smoke rose from the trouble torn area of Manningham. Her neighbour, Jane, had just parked her silver Porsche on the roadside. She waved at Svera who is lost in her thoughts, they carry her on their wingless shadows back to the distinct day in July when she found the list in Peter's pocket. A storm in the bath had shattered Svera’s belief in love. Peace became a rare commodity, both inside my walls and in this city. I could see with my own ‘stony’ eyes, Sir, that the peace between people had grown thinner and flat like a tire without air, like the layer of ashes, sooty and difficult to shake off. Social workers and defenders of ‘culture’ and of course the politicians who win votes on the promise of racial harmony had already started to play the game on the debris of these riots. Racism was a word people used and abused in order to achieve their own goals. This demon exists in every society, class and hierarchy in the world. On the name of racism, more resources were poured into projects to create ‘equal opportunities’, to ‘mobilise’ these ‘rowdy’ youths, to ‘bridge the gap’ and bla, bla, bla. Without getting emotional about the issue, we all know who makes the best out of these type of incidents, let’s glaze over some snippets of the ‘riots’.......... From my book, "Svera Jang."
Saturday, 10 September 2011
Hello. Who’s there? It’s only me, who is, was, will be. I am the narrator, the creator, as well as the one who jumps into the heads of all the other characters and become them, I, me. I am yours sincerely, Svera of the present, playing the roles of figures in the cabinet of time and composing the pages to continue the story of the other Svera, in the hope of filling your void. You might imagine things, try to understand them, yourself, me, try to put yourself into my shoes or even laugh at me. I want you to. You might be wondering. Huh, what the hell is she talking about? Confusing me? Did I really startle you with my entry like this? I am so sorry. Get used to my style folks. If you can consume Bruce Willis mysterious stuff in "Sixth Sense" and Johnny Depp’s monkey business in “Sleepy Hollow”, you can easily digest anything. You are able to. I am enabling you to see through these small black and white words. I am taking control here. This time, I am not in my favourite bedroom, sitting in front of my lighted screen, but while this other Svera is waiting in my bed, I, the narrator, will paddle back on the boat of memories to another time where Svera was the one I am writing about. The month of June, the year..... Let me take you back on this beautiful sailing trip, so you can see when Svera met Peter! (From my novel: Svera Jang)
Thursday, 8 September 2011
WHAT ARE WE SEARCHING FOR? It’s late afternoon, Undercliffe cemetery in the twilight of autumn. Yellow, brown, golden leaves falling under my feet like showers of memories, making a soft rug for the thunderous storms, winds and the snow yet to arrive in my life. I am the observer, a venturing travellor in a state of hallucination, watching Svera climb slowely the steep path. While she makes small stops, I listen to her gasping breath. She had wanted that moment so much, she was pregnant and in pain, was going to give birth, to nurture the baby of higher consciusness, feed it, let it grow. I was playing the role of a midwife. Many years of labour before the strong Svera would be re-born. I was waiting for it to happen. There was a long way to go. There always will be. You had gone through your pain, the birth of your search, your journey, your choice. Why couldn't I? Don’t you see what it is all about Mother? Minna, Nina. You? (from my novel: Svera Jang)
Monday, 5 September 2011
WHO IS SHE, WHERE IS SHE, HOW DID SHE GET HERE? Lingam. Snake. Giver and taker of life. Curled like a womb in comfort and protection. The only escape through the tunnel. She is at a point of no return. Alone, breathless, silent except for the sound of her lungs crying out for air in a dark crevasse. Attached only by umblical cord, a hangmans rope dangling, half conscious, half confused, swept into the corner like a discarded piece of flesh. Dulcified. The space is bubbling with hot vapours, lava curling up against something creeping. Two blue marbles pierce the darkness and with a blink of the eye disappear into her fear. She seems an easy prey. The slimy creature hisses in excitement, advancing towards her. It’s gaze is fixed upon her destiny. White fangs ready to spit venom into her body and entrance her with its seductive poison. Birth and death. The game starts. To hypnotise her into a trance is the first objective, then strike, bite and administer the venom.Thereafter she will act according to the rules. Steadily her senses will be tranquilised, blinded, speechless, immobalised with no sense of direction. Then the monster will wrap itself around her like a hangman lovingly preparing the noose, like lava around Pompeii, like maggots around the tea table, wrapped up like a cocoon, womb becomes tomb, lingam squeezing the life out of mother giving birth. Her lungs cry out “I am breathless, for god’s sake inhale me.” Stricken by the deep, cruel intention lurking behind those blue eyes, she is helpless, crumbling, yet drawn to lay down paralysed in awe, at the feet of the footless. Fatal attraction kills rationality. Her frivolousness incites the creature to more action. It starts to release threatening sounds whilst advancing closer and closer. Death’s door opens waiting to swallow and she begins to shake like a chankana. Rattle baby’s rattle snake. At the back of her mind she knows that she must escape her paralysis, gather up the fragments of her 'self' to fight back. Now. Take the first step, for God’s sake, take the first step. The reptile can smell her determination. This is a battle of wills. Send more hypnotic shrills. Send more hypnotic shrills. Send more hypnotic shrills. Waves of vibrations, snake rattle and roll with her intention and she can feel herself weakening. Stumbling, vision blurred, she falls into the gutter. She has been laying there for years. Numbed by the systematic denegration inflicted upon her by an abusive man. Who is she? Where is she? How did she get here? The beast is waiting for her to regain some consciousness, so it can continue the game. Like a cat would a mouse and a snake would a pussy. (Prelude from my novel: SVERA JANG)