The Last Pretence
In the South Indian town of Machilipatnam, Mallika gives birth to twins, Tara and Siva. Emotionally and psychologically damaged when her daughter dies during childbirth, Mallika finds herself unable to love Siva who is a constant reminder of Tara’s death. Pretending that Siva is Tara, both Mallika and Siva embark on a downward spiral of self-destruction that ends in tragedy. Sarayu Srivatsa’s The Last Pretence tells Mallika and Siva’s stories, their learning and unlearning of love and loss, and attempts to question, through stories of childhood, marriage, and motherhood, how identities and experiences of gender are shaped.
Its book jacket advertises The Last Pretence as a "novel that takes nothing for granted", and that "grapples with notions of love, gender and sexuality", a description that probably attracted readers who were intrigued by the idea that modern Indian-English writing was taking on gender stereotypes, particularly in the specific context of South India, where this theme has been relatively under-explored in contemporary Indian fiction. Alas, The Last Pretence falls far short of being revolutionary, both in craft and in plot.
Unimpressed by the writing, I asked myself if the author’s intentions had any merit. The principal character upon whom Srivatsa’s gender-play is enacted is Siva, who struggles with his gender identity because of his mother’s desperate inability to cope with her daughter’s death. But in what sense are we supposed to find Mallika’s behavior towards Siva troubling? Clearly, some combination of her delusion that her son is her daughter, but also that she sees her son as a girl, and that she treats him as such. Mallika’s ‘disturbing’ behavior includes dressing Siva up in girls' clothes; piercing his ears, and breast-feeding him for longer than necessary, which we are led to believe confuses his self-identity and his notions of what it would mean to be a girl (to be loved by his mother). Ultimately this leads him away from home, fuels his exploration of his own sexuality through his quick and sometimes brutal sexual encounters, and finally leads to his inability to negotiate his personal peace in Srivatsa’s fictionalized world.
In dabbling with issues of gender and sexuality Srivatsa appears like a young child with a stick—gently prodding some fascinating multi-legged creature under a rock. Curious, not intentionally cruel, but ultimately uncomprehending, she speaks as an outsider to the experiences of her characters, making them less believable and more allegorical in order to make broader didactic (but again, superficial) points about gender, culture and the nature of patriarchy.
Perhaps Srivatsa’s biggest failing is the superficiality with which she writes; for example, the historical context of Machilipatnam, a town "where the British first landed to trade in dyes" on the Coromandel coast of southern India – is more or less absent from the book, with limited interweaving of even its fictionalized history through the cursory mythology of George Gibbs and his incestuous relationship with his sister. It also includes a peek into the eunuch sub-culture in India (the stock shining symbols of gender subversion) where half-yawning, half horrified, the reader is dragged into a short (but seemingly necessary) scene of castration involving a sharp knife, hot oil and a grinding stone, cheaply highlighting the cruel repercussions of gender deviance in a straight world.
Marred by poor characterization, predictability, and unproductive diversions (inexplicable inter-religious riots seem to randomly pepper this slim novel) from an otherwise heavy-handed plot driven by unnecessary brutality and an unconvincing lack of detail, I found the long-listing of The Last Pretence for the Man Asian Literary prize undeserving. Lacking in originality and failing to deliver but the most prosaic of prose, The Last Pretence most damningly shrivels before a feminist gaze where it is slowly sucked into the quicksand of the hetero-normative aphorism that any deviations to established gender norms will be ruthlessly punished by society, and ultimately (spoiler alert!) cannot survive.