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A Romantic Faces Reality : NAMPALLY ROAD, By Meena Alexander (Mercury House: $15.95; 120 pp.)

January 27, 1991|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a frequent contributor to the Book Review

Like Noah's dove--or canaries dispatched by miners to test the air--Third World writers have been bringing tidings of life in the troubled post-colonial era. The news seldom has been good, but the wealth of writing--fiction, poetry, drama, reportage--is good news in itself.

"Nampally Road" is the first novel of 39-year-old Meena Alexander, who was born in India and now lives in New York, where she teaches in several writing programs. Alexander has published three volumes of poems and a critical study, "Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley."

The heroine of her first piece of fiction is a 25-year-old woman just returned from graduate school in England to her native Hyderabad. Mira Kannadical's favorite poet is Wordsworth. Like Aldous Huxley, who doubted that the great Romantic's benign view of nature would stand up in the carnivorous tropics, Mira is moved to wonder about the fate of Wordsworth's solitary spirit in the teeming land of India.

Even as she tries to teach her class the value of Wordsworth's focus on the individual mind, Mira's own attention is distracted by the turmoil in the streets around her. A peaceful demonstration by orange-vendors has been brutally put down. A young woman is raped and her boyfriend murdered by policemen who throw her into jail to cover up their crimes. And to paper over the misery and abuses of power, the chief minister of the state is organizing a massive festival to celebrate his despotic regime as a shining light of progress. As if it were not enough that the urgency of public and political life seems to push Wordsworth to the margin of the picture, Mira is also disturbed by the thought that political big lies are the dark side of Romantic myth-making.

Mira's own ambition is to be a writer, but her lover, Ramu, is scornful about her literary efforts and urges her to devote herself to politics as fervently as he does. A seasoned veteran of the protests against Indira Gandhi's state-of-emergency crackdowns, Ramu shows Mira a world of misery and injustice she cannot deny. She shares his outrage; furthermore, she loves him. But the sight of the abused victims makes Mira long for something beyond political action that she can do to fathom their suffering and ease their pain.

While Ramu promises that the people will rise up to avenge Rameeza, the rape victim, Mira senses that the woman is struggling with a pain too deep to be touched by his words, too deep to be expressed in her own words. When she is given paper and a pencil, she shakily proceeds to draw a pyramid of stones--which Mira believes is the very same image that has been haunting her own nightmares of late: stones of human flesh forming a pyramid, with water rising all around.

A statue of Mahatma Gandhi stands to memorialize the spirit of the Indian independence movement. But in Mira's and Ramu's eyes, the leaders of the new India have more in common with the megalomaniac Nizam of Hyderabad, who forced slaves to dive into boiling water to retrieve pearls. Against this spirit of avarice, gaudiness and wanton cruelty Mira sets the gentle, almost unnoticed spirit of Durgabai, familiarly called "Little Mother," a doctor who ministers to the poor. The actual mother of a fellow student of Mira's, Little Mother has invited Mira to stay with her in her house on Nampally Road. Little Mother labors mightily, working day in and day out to save lives, but there's only so much that she can do.

This very short novel tackles a number of serious and complex themes without reaching any neat conclusions. Although Mira's attachment to Little Mother and her sympathy for the brutalized Rameeza seem to be setting her on the road to full-fledged feminism, Ramu still is portrayed appealingly, even when he is at his most arrogant. Mira's literary ambitions and her affinity for Wordsworth seem to have some relationship to her emerging powers of empathy for other human beings, but nothing more explicit or conclusive is made of this. Thus, for all the power of Alexander's portrayal of the harsh world her heroine inhabits, there is a tentative, refreshingly modest quality about this book that moves one to respect its honesty even when its pacing falters or its focus blurs.

Alexander is a published poet. The lyrical qualities that readers sometimes expect to find in a poet's prose are often more in the fancy of the reader than in the sentences of the writer. The writing in "Nampally Road" is not particularly lyrical, nor is it rich with metaphor or memorable turns of phrase. Indeed, some of the phrases are a little cliched. It's the eye of the poet rather than her voice that's evident here in Alexander's gift for simple, yet vivid description and her feel for the significant detail in a given scene.

Set in the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi's crackdown on dissent seemed to many the most alarming threat on the subcontinent's political horizon, this novel transcends the specifics of its time and place by probing beneath the levels of politics, economics and ideology to touch something far more basic. The current situation in Alexander's native land, now torn by religious factionalism as bloody as anything since the murderous days following its independence, serves as a grim reminder of the forces that threaten not only a writer's imagination, but life itself.

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