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Click here to watch a video clip of The Finger Puppet being launched by Pandit Ravi Shankar at the India International Center, Delhi, and a live TV interview of Anu.



New Voices: Dialogues with daemons:
VASANTHA SURYA (from The Hindu)
This novel affirms that being authentically creative with one's own emotions and thoughts is a healing play, a leela.

"Filthy rich and clean broke!" — that's the situation of a dysfunctional family sitting on a gold mine of stolen antiques and prime real estate in Tiruchirapalli, and are reduced to eating rancid curd rice with mango pickle to disguise the taste. Thanks to a megalomaniac pater familias, who fancies himself to be a rationalist and a "modern".

Set in the mid 1960s, with a speechless 12-year-old's thumb as the protagonist, Anu Jayanth's debut novel is about many things Indian. Put together in the eclectic fashion of a Navaratri Golu, she holds together the whole show with some startling insights into the nature and function of language.

Restoring faith
The book's much- more-than-whimsical illuminations have proved wrong my distrust of a whole genre of Indian English writing, sparked long ago by Naipaul's An Area of Darkness. My reasoning then went thus: Here I am, drenched and gasping in this torrent of 'India' — what can a diaspora writer have to tell me about it, from that abstracting distance? This story of a deceptively phlegmatic maami and her three daughters who subvert feminist stereotypes and intelligently resist patriarchy without detesting their yajamaan, has taken the sting out of my defeat. Now, after all these years, I shall accept that for many outside India, as much if not more than for those who are here, India is not a geographical expression but an area of consciousness which can accommodate and sometimes ingeniously reconcile opposites. Its darkest patches have a way of suddenly lighting up.

Tara has been silenced by the experience of domestic violence. Unwilling to burden her beloved co-sufferers with her own struggle to cope with a seething welter of contradictory messages and feelings, she takes to talking with her own thumb. A common enough childhood daydream, you think. We remember whispering to invisible companions, and not just long ago. But when it's the coping technique of a victim of abuse, unsettling questions can surface: is this child "disturbed", or "depressed"? Does she have behavioural problems?

Changing conceptions
Our guesses on what constitute sanity and insanity have been changing, as we strive constantly to align received wisdom and apparent commonsense with what is currently seen as politically correct. Discoveries in neuroscience tempt us to speculate on the role of will and consciousness in human systems ruled by self-propelled neural impulses. The sense of losing ground and authenticity in a world of fragmenting identities has driven us to look anew at old ideas about the mind.

Lest you should think Tara's is a case of what goes by the name of schizophrenia, or the now-discredited diagnosis of "dissociative identity disorder" or multiple personality, hers is a instance which does not fit into that model of mutually exclusive or antagonistic selves. Tara's is a personality which grapples with but also celebrates and embraces its own "split", to use a phrase no longer fashionable in psychiatry. It divides itself not to escape from its daemons, but to have a dialogue with them from two standpoints. To remain integrated — and sane — without erasing the line of division, she plays … and how she plays! Her daemons, once confronted, turn into curiously endearing presences…

Serving a purpose
Like the many swamis and devis in the puja room, each of them a loving concatenation of human aspirations, Tara's daemons are there for a purpose: to guide her to solutions not available through the usual avenues of logical analysis. Tara and her sisters discover that being authentically creative with one's own emotions, observations, and thoughts is a healing play, a leela. What saves their flights of fantasy from turning into pathological delusions is the sense of fun that flutters around that house, under the indulgent eye of the "shock absorber" mother steeped in Vedas, ayurveda, ahimsa, and Carnatic music. The father who insists that it is just a figment of his silly womenfolk's imagination slowly sickens, while his wife heals herself of all her deepest griefs with her customised version of occupational therapy. She assures her children that their crazy father loves them all "in his own way". Positive reinforcement? Or just self-defense? The family breaks away at one point for sheer survival's sake but returns to care for him till the end. For, he is one of them, a pitiable fragment who has "lost it".

As Anu Jayanth weaves together the fabric of life in Tiruchi with the khadi values of Gandhigram, the motif of the finger puppet pops in and out. A strange kind of sutradhar, the finger puppet somehow manages to tassel together the many loose ends in this perceptive tale.



Speaking Out:
Anu Jayanth's promising debut novel is a passionate and ruthless defence of the wounded, writes SUDHA G TILAK

TAKE NO PART in their secrets, O my soul; keep far away, O my heart, from their meetings; for in their wrath they put men to death, and for their pleasure even oxen were wounded. (Genesis 49:6).

The rage of the wounded takes the oddest of forms, as you will know if you read this commendable debut novel by Anu Jayanth. Jayanth divides her time between Austin and Houston but her novel is not divided by any means. It's set in the 1960s, not quite swinging though, in Tiruchirapalli, the Rock Fort town of Tamil Nadu, a place applauded for its genteel folk and their fine manners. However, in The Finger Puppet the town is a mute spectator to the tragedy, the fury and domestic violence of the elite Brahmin household of the Ramakrishnans.

The family is burdened by a violent, oppressive father figure, three sisters and a long-suffering mother, and a lost brother who abdicates the responsibility of caring for the little women.

The talented elder sister, the incoherent and wounded middle sister, and the youngest -- eccentric and sharp -- all led by the caring and anguished mother, form a sorority that is united against a common enemy in their battered home.

The Finger Puppet's protagonist is Tara, a 13-year-old girl with a speech impediment. She creates a little alter ego, her finger puppet. It is a pretend-plaything, a toy we used to make of our own flesh by drawing a little face on the inside of the thumb and talking to it.

Through the muteness of the pre-teen and the fury of her puppet we are witness to the inhabitants of this dysfunctional family -- bloody, wrathful, vengeful, loving, dreaming, nurturing and hopeful.

The finger puppet unflinchingly observes the real world of ugliness, in which any fragility is crushed by the normal brutality of the day, and watches over the struggle of the disengaged to find a vocabulary of their own.

Jayanth is ruthless in stripping the respectability and elitism of upper-class Brahmins, a community that was held in social reverence in those times. But modern winds started blowing in the 1960s in the form of growing social justice politics. As anti-Brahminical rhetoric takes root in political space, traditions are upheld but their validity is challenged; and the balance between history and modernity, spirituality and religiosity, subjugation of women and their independence, all come up for discussion within the novel.

The grave tone of the story is somewhat weighed down by lengthy dissemination on the ancient Hindu oral traditions and the importance bestowed on the spoken word -- in contrast to the incoherence of young Tara.

The cover illustration is by the author herself and indicates the repertoire of talent she may reveal in many more stories to come.



The Telegraph:
The Finger Puppet (HarperCollins, Rs 295) by Anu Jayanth is a charmingly written debut novel, set in south India in the Sixties. It tells the story of the young, speech-impaired girl, Tara, and her life in a wealthy, Brahmin family in Tiruchirapalli. Tara's abusive father, her pretty and talented sisters, and her submissive mother make up her world. She retreats from this world into one of her own imagining to escape her insecurities about speech impediment and a sense of inferiority to her sisters. The 'finger puppet', her thumb, enters the novel as a sort of invisible character, the only one who understands Tara and becomes her confidante, as the young girl begins talking to it. Carnatic music and Indian folk tales form an important part of the childhood experience captured by Jayanth. This tale of a child's escape into fantastic worlds of the mind poignantly evokes the many facets of growing up.



Make-Believe Friends
In her beautifully crafted debut novel The Finger Puppet (HarperCollins), Anu Jayanth takes the reader on a nostalgic journey about childhood. The story is set in the 1960s town of Tiruchirapalli (Tirchy) and tells the tale of 11-year-old Tara who tries to cope with her speech impediment. The novel explores the young girl's relationship with her English-educated, strict father and a gentle, tradition-bound, ritualistic mother with a passion for Carnatic music and the Vedas. Her relationship with her two sisters -- the beautiful and gentle Padmini and the eccentric, sharp-tongued Cordelia -- is narrated with compassion. But it is the skilful telling of Tara's make-believe friendship with her thumb which is really touching. The girl takes refuge in pouring her heart out to her thumb -- her best friend.

Sometimes, Tara also tries to do away with the tongue which not only gives her an inferiority complex but also irritates her father, who therefore seldom interacts with her. Various elements of the novel -- a wistful tale, deft prose, a charmingly evoked Tirchy, girlhood days of jasmine flowers in the hair and an ambivalent relationship with parents -- invite us all to remember instances from our own childhoods and indulge in a bit of heartwarming nostalgia.
--Janhavi Abhyankar



As kids mouth it!
Anu Jayanth seems taken aback by the attention she received at the launch of her maiden novel (in Delhi) by Harper Collins. But she might as well have expected it, since Pandit Ravi Shankar released the book. And since when did the sitar maestro get interested in debutant novelists? Autobiographical

Perhaps since his sister-in-law became one. True to tradition, the big names of the Shankar family -- Panditji, Anoushka and Sukanya (Anu's elder sister) -- arrived to whoop cheerily for the author.

But Ravi Shankar's sister-in-law hasn't just written any old story. Anu's "The Finger Puppet" is an autobiographical novel. One in which you could safely bet on the inspiration for at least one character -- the beautiful Padmini, whose childhood ambition, her sisters blurt out one day, is to marry Pandit Ravi Shankar!

The novel has "borrowed shamelessly" from Anu's family, the author concedes. When Anu remarks, "As it is I'm a recluse, and once you start writing, you become even more of a recluse," one is tempted to ask if that is a quality she shares with her protagonist Tara, who opens her heart only to her own finger puppet. Anu emphatically denies the parallel. "I'm definitely not the narrator."

However, drawing parallels to real-life characters need not overly concern readers, and the author certainly has a greater purpose. The novel, believe it or not, started as Anu's research into the Vedas, in which she has an abiding interest.

The best stories teach us something without a spelt-out moral. For the author, already working on a sequel, the message is important. "Any time a writer picks up a pen, I feel it should make a difference to at least one reader."
ANJANA RAJAN



Cutting the strings
Pick up a razor blade, open your mouth, slash at the imprisoning ropes of flesh tethering your tongue Like Tara's, your hand slips and your thumb bleeds.

This cut conjures up a face, you add details and the face takes on character, is infused by that which you cannot verbalise, it becomes your hidden-self waiting to break free. So powerfully is the thumb invested with selfhood that Gayatri, the finger puppet, is the main protagonist of Anu Jayanth's book, The Finger Puppet.

But is the tyrant just the taunts of 'dumb box' that Tara faces? Wounds lie beneath... Amma cannot hide her bruises, Padmini will leap off a building, Shivaram the exiled son has driven nails into his hands. Then you meet him-- Appa-- terror of the Ramakrishna household and Tiruchirapalli. Woe betide one who leaves the mug in the bathroom at the wrong angle.

But behind Appa are other tormentors. Periyar impatient with Brahmanical oppression, and Appa's love for things Western. So it is not just the Ramakrishnas who must fear him, the Gods must too. Appa's business in antiques is less than kosher. His name is associated with stolen idols. Now this makes Appa vulnerable, but if Gayatri succeeds in ratting on him to the police the women will lose. For then they will be ringed by the 'porkis'. Like the jeweller lifting his mundu to the mother pawning her gold. While Tara's thumb considers options from murder to an ayurvedic diet, it takes the more pragmatic Amma to find the real solutions and the dark mother of the cosmos to show the real way.

Multilayered
Now one can read The Finger Puppet at many levels. Of the voiceless self rising up against disability (And here it receives unqualified applause). One can read it as battered women rising up against patriarchy (Here the clapping is measured). But at the deepest level it is polemical. The father represents all that Brahmanism fears, or has degenerated into.

Since the lingam as a symbol justifies Appa's tupping of the maids, the novel's protagonists desperately seek an alternate interpretation and present the worshiped lingam as the upraised tongue. The novel holds that Appa's moral faults and deteriorating health is because he eats 'death foods'-- and what is that? Egg curry!

As a reformationist argument it is ridiculously naïve, or is it an intense curry of bruised thought simmering in a battered home?

Polemics in novels have that escape hatch. What is not naïve is Gayatri's encounter with the primal mother, from this comes the true possibility of understanding for the beleaguered women and... tradition.

Like many serious Indian English women writers with an international audience, Anu's book revels in detail, the sights, smells, masala, regionality of Indian Life. So the fiery 'kumgumum dot' and how it's applied is covered a few million times. It is a tribute to Anu's book that one understands why this genre should not be dismissed as cultural tourism; At home, the woman needs to be sensitive to the slightest nuance, outside she must ignore the brothel behind the pushcart.

This view, one eye microscopic, the other blinded like Nelson's offers a new take on life. And so one welcomes not just a new talent but begins to identify a new school of writing; principally feminine, dealing with vividly personal issues with vaster moral resonances, set at home, in intensely regional settings yet addressing a global audience. One we may call the spice jar, or kolam school of writing.

An interesting protagonist, believable characters, a powerful story, layers of thought... add to this a beautifully angular poetic style. And you have an interesting (and dense), thought-provoking (and gawky) debut novel that helps us living in the Tiruchirapallis of life to appreciate it and escape it. The Finger Puppet, Anu Jayanth, 361 pages

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