Saikat Majumdar's The Firebird was more than a book for me. It was a bittersweet cocktail of emotions. It was reliving a part of my early life in the narrow lanes of Calcutta. Saikat’s characters are people I’ve known, people that I too explore while writing fiction.
The Firebird was like a time machine that transported me back to the Calcutta of my childhood. It was a novel experience--so personal and special; even though I'd read books based on Calcutta before, this was an intimate journey, like seeing parts of my life play out before me.
Saikat’s descriptions of Ori’s school, the beauty parlours, sweet shops, playhouses, even the house where Ori’s family lived were all drenched in nostalgia for me.
I can only describe the experience as one that transcended the intellect and became a more visceral one. It was as if I smelled the vinegar and soy sauce in the Chinese restaurant, ate the crumbly sandesh, felt Mummum’s stringy plaits between my fingers, or watched a theatre in one of the dilapidated playhouses in Calcutta.
As a new writer, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have come across the work of a seasoned author who delves in complexities, themes, and characters that also interest me. I’m working on a collection of linked short stories partly set in the nineties Calcutta, where places like the Catholic school or Chinese restaurants also feature, where themes like parent-child relationship and coming of age occur prominently.
That is why this is a book that I’ll revisit from time to time. I took notes throughout the reading to understand how Saikat achieved some of the effects from the characters and settings that I too wish to produce in my stories.
Every aspect of the novel pulsates with beauty and realism
Saikat is remarkable in his treatment of Ori's character. The young boy starts off as a character the reader would root for and then slowly, he lets his dark side take over all that is innocent and pure within him. A boy whom we sympathize with in the beginning, gradually turns vicious as we helplessly bear witness to it.
Grey characters appeal to me as a reader and as a writer. Even the smallest of things about Ori—feeling aroused by his teacher’s touch while still thinking of her as a mother figure is so remarkably close to real life. He is on the cusp of adulthood and yet, he’s still a child. Both these emotions intermingle to portray a character with whom we can deeply relate. Perhaps this is how Ori also felt about his elder cousin, Shruti and about his mother, Garima. A sense of awe mixed with wonder and admiration. And yet, the boy who craves for affection doesn’t hesitate to cause a trail of destruction because of his deep-rooted hatred. How complex he is-- just like real people, just like us.
Even the peripheral characters are masterfully etched by this sensitive writer. From Miss Miranda to Tatai, Dushtu, Trinankur, Rupa, Mummum, everyone feels realistic because of Saikat’s thoughtful treatment and his careful eye for detail.
For example, Rupa’s change from a passive and discontented woman to a full-fledged aggressive and controlling one after a big mishap was marvelous and utterly believable.
Here’s a description of a minor character: Trinankur’s wife wasn’t the kind of person who tore things down. Everything about this heavyset woman sagged just a little bit from the weight of kindness, as if she was a ripe sandesh made of cottage cheese that was now going faintly sour. A sad life had made her kinder to the world. --Page 126
Here’s a glimpse of Ori’s father: After a stormy fifteen years with a beautiful wife, he had wilted into a creature who felt safe and happy only with his plain and efficient older sister-in-law. His Boudi. His whole world. --Page 182
The vivid imagery and setting details are impactful even though they’re not verbose. The sense of urgency in the pacing of the novel makes it flow like a thriller. Even though this is a literary novel, there is not a single dull moment.
In one of his talks, Saikat had mentioned Indian writer Raja Rao’s comment about how we’re trying to write in English about lives that are lived in the vernacular. I think that is the perfect expression for the struggles that I sometimes face as a writer. Saikat achieves this transition effortlessly. In his pages, even the smallest of things that are intimate to a life lived in Calcutta come alive for the broader audience.
(Image: Saikat Majumdar's novel The Firebird; the background photo is a painting by Shuvankar Bera that is on the cover of my upcoming novel, A Mothers' Goodbye)
The theme of an absent mother in both our novels
After reading The Firebird, I had an engaging discussion with the author. As it so happened, Saikat had also recently read an early copy of my upcoming novel A Mother’s Goodbye. We discussed how the theme of the mother’s absence from her children’s lives plays a pivotal role in both our novels.
In A Mother’s Goodbye, three children (aged 17, 16, 8) fend for themselves when their mother leaves them one day. In The Firebird, the members of the then ruling Communist Party and her own family force Garima Basu to choose between her profession and her life in the joint family. She pursues her love for theatre and pays dearly for it.
But the question that we both seem to raise is this choice that a mother needs to make. How a mother is supposed to be the epitome of sacrifice and how the wellbeing of her family must come before her own needs. How she is expected to let every other identity of hers fade into the background. How she is chastised for wanting to live her life on her own terms.
In The Firebird, Saikat shows Garima’s struggles as a theatre actress to take care of her son while maintaining her career. Is she a good mother if she doesn’t know how to effortlessly run a house, how to cook her son’s favorite dishes, how to be there for him with hot meals and a loving presence after he returns from school?
Ori is proud of his mother in the beginning. He looks at the posters of his mother’s play stuck all over the walls of their para, and is filled with a sense of pride. That good feeling soon curdles into shame when people compare her job to that of a prostitute, when they make strange implications about her character.
Even though his cousin, Shruti—a young girl and the only family member who deeply admires Garima—tells him not to listen to the ignorant people, Ori’s mind gets poisoned with bits and pieces of neighbourhood gossip. He doesn’t hesitate to omit the truth when he reports to his Mummum (grandmother) that he’d seen her kiss another man. Maybe, in his adolescent mind, reality and fiction got intermingled, or maybe he simply wanted to punish his mother for making him feel ashamed of her. Saikat has brought about Ori’s love and shame for his mother, exquisitely through the portrayal of his emotional upheavals.
In A Mother’s Goodbye, the two teenage children feel mortified when they discover pieces of their mother’s lives—she smoked, wrote poetry, slept with different men...how can this be the same mother who packed lunches for their school, who sat by their bedsides when they were ill, who managed her job and housework while hiding the struggles she was going through?
These emotions of seeing your parents as flawed, real human beings with their own demons and desires are something that pervade both our novels. Be it Ori or the siblings (Avik and Mou), none of these children can see beyond the curtain of their pain to understand their mothers. They do try in their own broken and complicated ways but in the end, they’re left grappling for answers.