Fire

The Thousand Faces of Night – A Charcoal-Inked Raga

Book Review

The certainty of it being the night promises us of the erubescent dawn. It is an inky night, it has been for aeons and aeons… and, mind you, she uses charcoal-ink… for the stove is still burning, she never forgets to collect woods.

And so, with her inky fingers she writes messages, anecdotes, dead secrets and stolen dreams on the walls in the kitchen.

A custom followed since antiquity, now the charcoal-ink smells of these quiet cursive messages. It talks about the dark night and the breaking of the dawn.

Her inky fingers will turn red with the dawn.


But Sita needed all the strength she could muster to face the big trial awaiting her. After that, it was one straight path to a single goal, wifehood. The veena was a singularly jealous lover.

Then one morning, abruptly, without an inkling that the choice that was to change her life lurked so near, Sita gave up her love. She tore the strings off the wooden base, and let the blood dry on her fingers, to remind herself of her chosen path on the first difficult days of abstinence.

Githa Hariharan (Part Three; Chapter 1)

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Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma.
[Source – Wikimedia Commons]

The Thousand Faces of Night (1992) is written by the astounding Githa Hariharan. The novel is a melody sung and composed at night that captures the thousand faces of the moonless, starless night.

It narrates the many tales of Indian women – the celebrated mythical ones and the limited editions – with such excellence that the novel takes the shape of a woman carrying a heavy potli bag full of tales.

The tales, entangled badly, still echo well and dramatise their essence. The tales are spicy and heart wrenching and true.

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Earthenware… they hold intact their stories, cultures for centuries.
[Source – Pixabay]

Devi, Sita, Mayamma – daughter, mother, maid – kindle fire that burns time, others and themselves. And so powerful is this fire that life gathers around it to get some inspiration.

Delicate like earthenware, painted beautifully, allegedly breakable, they hold intact their stories, cultures for centuries; you must have seen the pieces of such earthenware dug out from archaeological sites, displayed in a museum safely.

Their resilience never fails them even if it means to walk alone, against the tide, the familiar sunshine. Devi, the present, dares to break away, in her agility, eager to explore, moving away from Mayamma and Sita, the past.

Posing in front of the patriarch, they contribute to his legacy/magnificence. After foolishly spending a long time and suffering from backaches, Sita straightens up and Devi dodges the mockery, while Mayamma continues.

The patriarch sees Mayamma and smiles, Mayamma bows and cusses silently. She prays for Devi.

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The new raga.
[Source – Pixabay]

After etching their charcoal-inked messages on the kitchen walls, the three ladies change the notation of their melody slightly, making the raga, still sung at night, fresher.

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I must have, as I grew older, begun to see the fine cracks in the bridge my grandmother built between the stories I loved, and the less self-contained, more sordid stories I saw unfolding around me. The cracks I now see are no longer fine, they gape as if the glue that held them together was counterfeit in the first place. But the gap I now see is also a debt: I have to repair it to vindicate my beloved storyteller.

Githa Hariharan (Part One; Chapter 3)

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