Review by Karishma Attari
Between Lives begins with an intriguing prospect. A young Malaysian girl working at the Social Reconstruction Department is selected, perhaps for people skills, but probably for her knowledge of Tamil, to handle the eviction of an old woman who refuses to surrender valuable forestland for the construction of a theme park. Sumitra is eager to participate in “the wind of change that is at last unsettling old habits of thought and behaviour.” It seems like selfishness to hold on to what could be enjoyed by many. Her urban lifestyle in a busy city, with a cosmopolitan mix of friends and influences, is at odds with the stubborn old woman’s lonely vigil on her land.
Sumitra realises she must first establish kinship with the woman, then bring her around to the Department’s point of view. Except that the opposite begins to happen. The pull of the land is also the pull of memory and a celebration of forgotten culture and pasts. Sumitra finds herself slipping into the old woman’s past, lost in the photographs and stories and events of the first generation Indian tappers and farmers who were brought to Malaysia by the British. Sumitra’s own existence begins to peel back as she gains a deeper understanding of her parents and grandmother, and eventually her own life.
Maniam’s writing is deeply layered and he establishes the conflicts around which the story revolves: between modernism and tradition, generations, cultures, and personal motivations. There is a high level of mysticism he brings to the telling; the rituals of poojas and cleansing baths, and other such doorways, take the reader into a sacrosanct realm.
It is not always easy to surrender to the parallels he sets up, however, and as Sumitra’s family begins to get drawn into the tale of the old woman’s family, the story becomes increasingly hard to accept. Between Lives is not so much a “haunting tale of love and redemption,” (as its blurb suggests) as much as an engagement with the past that is at times substantial, at others willfully tenuous. The spunky do-gooder heroine pulls ahead manfully but seems helpless in the face of a pattern that defies credibility.
Review originally posted in DNA India