‘Searching for Durga Sabyasachi’: A Kerala writer’s novel on the Bhopal gas tragedy

Kerala writer Chandini Santosh goes back and forth between 1984 and 2011, to tell the story of a man in search of his mother who died on that fateful day.
‘Searching for Durga Sabyasachi’: A Kerala writer’s novel on the Bhopal gas tragedy
‘Searching for Durga Sabyasachi’: A Kerala writer’s novel on the Bhopal gas tragedy
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There is an enchanting air about Durga Sabyasachi even as she does something as ordinary as walk through a stream of water and pose for a photograph. It is Chandini Santosh’s doing. Her words can pick out the ordinariness of life and make it sound magical. In her new novel Searching for Durga Sabyasachi, Chandini writes about a mysterious woman who died in 1984, on that horrific day of the Bhopal gas tragedy, after giving birth to a son.

This is the third novel that Chandini, based in Kannur, has written, but is the second to be published – two years after The House of Oracles: Who says letting go is easy. That was about an ancestral house with a shrine in it and how the women in the house, who had to stay in an outhouse during their menstrual cycle, reacted to the customs. There was a Blood Brothers in between the two novels - on Kannur killings and politics, but that’s been shelved for reasons best known to her and her publisher. Not one to worry about being a published author, Chandini, a late bloomer, just wanted to keep writing on her computer every day. You can get a glimpse of this special love for words in the tidbits she writes on Facebook every other day, mostly of the time with her late husband, who was a doctor.

When she is asked why she’s made Mohit, the protagonist of her new novel, so observant, Chandini remarks that her husband too had been like that. Mohit is the son that Durga had given birth to, before she died breathing the poisonous gas. Twenty seven years later, he comes to Bhopal with his chirpy girlfriend Pia, to find out about the mother he never knew. All he has is a photograph his stepfather had left him, and a name scrawled over it. The writer uses Mohit and Durga to talk of the miserable half lives the tragedy had left behind.

Chandini, as you might expect, did not choose to write as Durga. She chooses instead to be Mohit’s voice and in alternate chapters, writes a third person account of Durga’s story. “Yes, the voice was tricky, the timeline being what it is. I began to write Durga in third person, but realised soon enough that the storyteller would have to move back and forth to take in both voices simultaneously. Who would carry the story forward after Durga’s death? How would Mohit know the details of Durga’s life if he were to narrate the tragic tale?” Chandini explains.

So every time Mohit picks up a piece of the puzzle from his mom’s life, Chandini goes back to describe it in real time. Durga, you imagine, as the sari-clad woman of the 1980s, looking perhaps like Shabana Azmi. Chandini’s drawing on the cover of the book shows a woman with a long face, but without the expressions you know Durga has in the photograph. Mohit does not find out much of her past but we know that she was living with her sister and her abusive husband, who also has eyes for the younger Durga. She was 25 then, and Mohit had guessed his mother died at 26. So that’s a year then, for Durga to be intimate with a man and have a baby and die.

Chandini Santosh

The man – the Sabyasachi part of the name – is not far away. He lives opposite Durga’s apartment, a civil engineer who is three years younger than her. The love seems rushed – Durga running to his place and pleading for protection, when one day the wretched brother in law's more violent than usual; Sabyasachi taking her into his home, and the two turning intimate without giving out the slightest hint. 

“Yes, the relationship between Durga and Sabya seemed to happen too suddenly for it to have been real. I’d like to remind you that Durga is not in her teens; she’s not the average woman either. She’s twenty-five years old when she comes in with Sabyasachi Mukherji, who’s years younger than her. Durga has seen the world, seen the worst, she’s ready to face it all, even primed for a sexual encounter. He’s an immature law student and at the time of meeting Durga, badly in need of comfort. For the rest, my imagination and intuition did take over,” Chandini says.

Mohit’s and Pia’s new age love is more old-fashioned, in that they first meet accidentally at a café, then plan a date together. But Pia seems to be in the thick of things when Mohit rushes from one door to another, to find answers. She is by his side, exuberant at times, mature when he is down, and unreasonably angry at other times. Mohit appears to notice every little detail about her, the clothes she wears, the expressions on her face – the kind of details women notice more than men, in general. 

“He was meant to be observant. Otherwise he wouldn't have noticed the subtle nuances from the story his stepfather had told him. He wouldn't have been able to piece together the poignancy of his mother's predicament. He wouldn't have bothered to go on a blind search for Durga. He wouldn't have been such a wonderful boyfriend. I wanted to capture just such a man. Caring, affectionate, considerate and cool,” Chandini says.

It is also Mohit that the writer is closest to, she admits. “He’s me. His immense love and curiosity are all mine. The pain he goes through while he’s at it, searching for his biological mother, though he leads a fairly cushy life is intrinsic to that character. Without Mohit, there’s no story. Durga Sabyasachi would have remained a name on paper, one among the millions who died on that fateful night.”

That fateful night was something that Chandini had been obsessed with ever since the news of the Bhopal gas tragedy broke. She would catch hold of every bit of news that appeared in dailies and journals. “I wanted to build awareness around it, but did not know how. Then came Raghu Rai’s moving photographs of the human tragedy involved. I had not even remotely thought about writing in those days. Writing dropped on me twenty years later," she shares. 

Chandini with Raghu Rai

She had, at first, wanted to do a series of ballpen sketches of the Bhopal tragedy. She draws, too, and has had exhibitions before. But then she began writing – on that day when a computer got installed at home and she went on, without realising that a novel was going to be made.

Chandini has written poems too – two collections called Time Series and other poems and Voice Series and other poems. 

Also read: From ‘mixture maama’ to Modi: How new Tamil films are taking digs at politicians

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