Book Review: Qabar by K.R. Meera

K.R. Meera plays with different kinds of vision in Qabar, recently translated by Nisha Susan

This story was originally published in India Today.

A perfect book cover is rare enough that sometimes it’s worth taking into account when judging a book. This is true of the new English translation of KR Meena’s 2020 novella Qabar, adorned by a brilliant visual pun that encapsulates the dazzling double meanings and perspectives contained within. A green dome, the silhouette of a Muslim tomb, alludes to the title, but is also the calyx of an upside-down, dried out ‘Edward rose’, the mysterious scent of which pervades Qabar’s pages. The tension between these two motifs, symbols perhaps of death and love, and the feeling of a world tumbling between irreconcilable realities, define this deftly told, disturbing yet bracingly magical tale.

The story begins with Additional District Judge Bhavana Sachidanand, who is thrown off balance in her courtroom by a plaintiff who seems to be using djinn-like powers to control her perceptions. Kaakkasseri Khayaluddin Thangal, a disconcertingly well-heeled ‘hottie’, fills the room with the scent of roses, causes rainbows to dance in her eyes, and conjures up an intimidating spectre from the past. In the courtroom, the preservation of an qabar allegedly belonging to Thangal’s ancestor, on land that has been sold to a charitable trust, is at the heart of the matter. But despite the weighty connotations of this conflict (the name of the trust, Saketam, even alludes to Ayodhya), the story teeters over into matters of the heart.

For a judge, Bhavana is an emotional narrator, whose giddy voice translator Nisha Susan renders into English with zest. The single mother of a boy diagnosed with ADHD, Bhavana reveals that she spent most of her life stamping out her intelligence in deference to her former husband, and that she eventually became a judge because she would be assigned to two assistants. We meet  her mercurial son Advaith, her self-absorbed ex-husband Pramod, her father who is addicted to TV serials, and her mother who lives independently with a clan of beloved street dogs. Beyond these exceptional but credible characters is Yogeshwaran Ammavan, a fantastical ancestor who returned to Kashi after going there to die, bringing back with him two powerful young goddesses.

About Kaakkasseri Khayaluddin Thangal, the mind-reader, we learn very little until a shocking revelation—dealt with in one line—late in the book. Overwhelmed by her attraction to him, Bhavana pushes his religious identity off to the furthest corner of her narrative while focussing on the challenges she has faced as a woman in a conservative society. KR Meera plays with different kinds of vision throughout Qabar, masterfully capturing the consignment of uncomfortable truths to the periphery, the kaleidoscopic experience of love or fear, and how prejudice often disguises itself as blind justice. Under the book’s dust jacket is a gold rose embossed on a dull red cover—just one more of its unending layers.

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