Book Review: 'What We Know About Her' is steeped in memory, social commentary and Carnatic music
Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her is a piecing together of events from the past to speak of an issue which will bear contemporary relevance no matter in which era one speaks about it
There is something about a novel that is partly set in the present time and part in a bygone era, the parts about the bygone era told through letters exchanged between the characters from that era. I feel closer to the narrator, in that the narrator – in the present day as me – knows about that bygone era only as much as I do, trying to piece together that bygone era from those letters.
Krupa Ge’s second book and her first novel, What We Know About Her, is a piecing together of events from the past to speak of an issue which will bear contemporary relevance no matter in which era one speaks about it, whether in the 1940s – like how Ge’s novel does – or in the 2020s—all thanks to the patriarchy that we have nurtured, upheld, suffered, and, yet, internalised.
Ge’s novel begins with a dispute between Yamuna (the narrator of the novel) and her mother over the ancestral home in Chengalpattu that belonged to Yamuna’s maternal grandfather who was settled in Varanasi at the time Yamuna narrates this novel. In the first few pages, I learnt that Yamuna’s mother had succeeded in having her father bequeath the house to her, much to Yamuna’s chagrin as she was the default caretaker of that house for her parents lived in Chennai. Moving between three places, Ge’s novel is more than just a mother-daughter drama though. The Her in the novel’s title is Lalitha, Yamuna’s grandaunt who was a noted, albeit controversial, Carnatic vocalist in the 1940s, whose life this novel attempts to piece together.
Ge’s recalling the past is delightful and immediately connected with me. She mentions Higginbotham’s, Tinkle, and Gokulam while describing Yamuna’s childhood with her mother. At a place in the novel where Yamuna is searching through the house in Chengalpattu wearing a kaftan, the imagery is quite stunning. The house – and the novel, in turn – is rendered mysterious with the introduction of an odour that is powerful enough to repel others but which Yamuna keeps on ignoring. And Ge has things to say (through her characters) about the caste system, the reservation vs. merit debate, and the anti-CAA protests as well, deftly bringing it all into the plot. For example, Yamuna’s mother, a trade union lawyer, visits Varanasi to meet her father and attends an anti-CAA protest there. There is a touch of sarcasm when Yamuna, mid-sentence, almost says “Allaha—” but immediately corrects herself and says “Prayagraj”.
These are the contemporary concerns of the novel, and amidst these is Yamuna’s search for Lalitha through the letters. It is the context of the letters that makes them special: they were written by Yamuna’s grandmother – a woman – to her husband in the 1940s when women were not expected to “leave their letters lying about…for if you said one wrong thing, you could get caught in the quicksand of pettiness and scandal.” As I came to know about Lalitha through these letters, the house in Chengalpattu too became a metaphor for something important and of perpetual relevance.
Steeped in memory, social commentary, curiosity, and Carnatic music, Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her is a fiction debut to be cherished.