Seema’s novel is Svera’s song of life
Reading a novel by an author you know personally is fraught with dangers; all the more so when the novel in question is the author’s first. So Mark Cantrell approached Seema Gill’s Svera Jang with a certain sense of trepidation. What he discovered is a beautifully crafted novel about one woman’s resilience – and the strength of the human spirit
By Seema Gill
Paperback (386 pages)
Indigo Dreams Publishing
(No longer available)
WHEN I got hold of a copy of Svera Jang by Seema Gill, I must confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the novel would suit my reading habits, but in truth I hadn’t really bought the book to read at all – I just wanted to own a copy.
Already familiar with Seema’s poetry from our mutual involvement, some years ago, in Bradford’s literary scene, I was curious about her prose, so I was motivated by something of a collector’s urge. Seema, naturally enough, was delighted to learn that I had partaken of her work: thus did she throw down the gauntlet and beg me to review her pride and joy.
Suddenly, I found myself caught in tangle of the ethical and the personal – what if I didn’t like the book? What if I thought it poorly written? A review is worthless for both potential reader and author alike unless honestly given; likewise the truth has the capacity to hurt the author (or indeed swell their heads).
There’s a safe distance between reviewer and author when the two aren’t acquainted personally, so I suddenly found myself running the risk of slapping Seema unbidden in the face. I can’t say that I relished the prospect. So, would I dare to confront the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Yes, I dared, with misgivings. And then I started to read… and read… and read. Fate, or rather Seema’s writing, had slipped me a saving grace. All my worries evaporated as I was pulled into the story of Svera Jang and became seduced by Seema’s evocative prose. In one respect, though, I was right. The novel exists beyond my usual reading habitat, so it was an added pleasure to find my literary horizons become expanded. And, in this case at least, the grass was indeed greener on the far side of the fence.
Quite simply, Svera Jang is a beautiful book. Filled with warmth and compassion, the writing has an eloquence that speaks from the heart to convey a life-affirming story that has a resonance for us all.
Svera Jang dared me to be honest, which in a curious kind of way is what her story is all about, but it is also about much more than that. As Seema wrote: “[I]t’s a story of life.” These few words, buried deep inside the narrative, stood out as I read them for the way they innocently encapsulated the entirety of the novel.
The life in question is that of the character Svera Jang, but it is more than that, since the narrator is the older Svera. Born of the same mother’s womb, they are nevertheless separated by time and space and experience, but the older woman has the clarity – or perhaps the cloudiness – of hindsight as she undertakes a journey to reconcile Svera past with Svera present.
As much as it is about Svera’s life and times, it is also concerned with the chains of motherhood that link us all, one generation to the next, in a great flourishing tree of humanity. Motherhood, yes, and convention too, the great waves of expectation that demand we conform to half-comprehended norms and values; we are all shrouded this way, but it is women who are bound the tightest and in many ways Svera Jang is an urgent plea to shed these webs – and be true to each other and ourselves.
In that respect, though the themes of the feminine course strong throughout the novel, it is above all a book of humanity: man or women, young or old, we are all born of a mother’s womb. If this sounds philosophical to the point of becoming esoteric, then yes it is, for the book is also resplendent with a spiritual aura (but don’t mistake that as necessarily religious), as the narration makes its impassioned plea for the human soul to shine through the veils of age-old stifling custom.
Svera’s journey of self-reconciliation starts in the Punjab, India, where the young Sikh woman’s artistic spirit is already straining against the everyday expectations of culture and country. From there, she strikes out on her own, running from an arranged marriage, but her idealistic pursuit of a life lived true and of a love unbound by conventional expectations lands her in a union with a “philandering Marxist”. Worse still, he proves a wife-beating coward; the very antithesis of everything that young Svera hoped and lived and loved for.
When Svera finds herself living in Copenhagen, she perceives in Europe a land free of the stifling conformity of her homeland, and in young Peter, her blond Viking as she calls him, the very essence of the unconventional man. A Marxist, a revolutionary, he appears to stand against expectation in his desire to change the world, but poor Svera learns – too late – that Europe and her Viking are every bit as bound in expectations of conformity as her homeland.
Peter’s Marxism is little more than a confirmation of his conventionality; a twisted parody of his role as the patriarchal authority figure he would no doubt claim it dismisses. The whole revolutionary show, no matter his personal and sincerest conviction, is but a vehicle for his self-centred narcissism; the demonstration of his stoic devotion to duty and self-sacrifice but a mask to hide his selfish interests and a justification for the neglect of his young wife. The man abandons his young bride on their wedding night to attend a party meeting, surly a sign of things to come as he warps the relationship to suit his own shallow needs.
We are all the sum total of our personal and societal contradictions, Peter the Marxist might say; true enough. Equally do we all carry within us the seeds of a tangled hypocrisy, but as the young Dane matures – in flesh if not in character – alongside his put-upon wife, those Marxian contradictions slough away to leave merely the hypocrite.
The story follows the increasingly mismatched pair from Denmark, to Bradford, England, where they settle for a time. That is, until Peter's wanderlust takes him to partake of charity works in Africa. There his more base lusts see him wander in pursuit of the local women. Svera's suspicions are eventually confirmed; sex with Indian women is so predictable he sneers, compounding his wife's humiliation. To my mind, this middle-aged man, so flushed with a sense of prowess at bedding African girls half his age, thereby further compounds his wrongs with a rather racist undertone.
Indeed, though he himself may not perceive it, he reveals himself as something of a caricature of the old colonialist, albeit it in a 'progressive' guise, striding forth under the weight of the 'white man's burden' to uplift the poor 'natives'.
Ironically, Svera demonstrates a far greater patience and compassion towards Peter than does this review; but then this reviewer found in Peter's curious amalgam of political and personal flaws an echo of his dealings with many a minor figure of the Left: the same familiar arrogance, the same distortions of ideology to justify selfish preferences, the same tendency to disparage others for their own personal failings.
The recognition, for me, made him a deeply unsympathetic character, but also a strangely compelling one. Perhaps Svera felt the same compulsion; certainly, in her story she demonstrates a tremendous energy in trying to reach out and pull the lost essence of her idealistic blond Viking out of his pompous shell. Ultimately, however, Peter proves to be a lost cause.
Reading the story, it is easy to find contempt for Peter as the years pass and he reveals his inadequacies. In truth, however, he is a pitiful and pitiable creature, completely unworthy of the mother of his children, or indeed of the politics he claims to uphold. It is clear that he cannot handle the free-spirited, artistic soul he has wed. The man is crippled by his own conventionality, stunted by his conformity, and the surface radicalism of his politics is but an expression of his stagnant spirit.
Deep down, one suspects he knows this; a tiny sliver of self-awareness that provokes him to take it out on his wife, but even this pathetic man’s fists ultimately prove unable to dowse the light of Svera’s spirit. Though she is forced to endure much pain, grief and shadow in the course of the relationship, she finally manages to liberate herself and rise above Peter to “soar like a firefly” as Seema writes on the book jacket.
The subject matter might sound grim and gritty, a journey in to some kind of misery-lit, but far from it. Svera Jang is a life-affirming story, a demonstration of one woman’s indomitable spirit and determination to remain true to herself. One might also describe it as a kind of ‘coming of age’ tale, the way that the older Svera confronts herself in the mirror of introspection and memory to come to terms with her younger self, yet remain true to her youthful ideals. This is a woman not content to let herself become staid and bitter as she rediscovers the threads that bind Svera through each of her living incarnations. In that, Seema demonstrates a lesson for us all.
Seema’s writing slips seamlessly through a number of narrative approaches. The story doesn’t simply interweave the contemporary with flashbacks of her earlier life, but slides back and forth along her timeline with graceful ease. At times, the prose slips into a delightful magical realism and Seema’s writing is lyrical whether Svera narrates herself, or whether the story slips into the observations of ghosts or even the house in which she dwells. They all take a turn in revealing Svera’s story.
An unusual approach this might be, but it conjures up a beautiful and at times dream-like quality that never loses its roots in the real. This is very much a reflection of Seema’s incarnation as a visual artist and poet, almost painting her story with the palette of her colourful language. Indeed, her prose is imbued with the living spirit of poetry, with its ebb and flow of its cadence, the rhythm lively with the eloquence of human speech in full flow.
“Admirers of Seema Gill’s poetry will not be disappointed by her first novel,” said Bill Broady, quoted on the cover. “Most poets damp down the fires when they venture into prose but she has gone for a full-on conflagration. Language is stretched to its breaking point – and often beyond – in its swoopings between the rhapsodic and the aggrieved.”
When it comes to stretching language to its breaking point, however, I must disagree with Broady: oh no, Seema shows herself too subtly aware of the malleability of her metal as she shapes the story into the fine filigree of its narrative strands, weaving them into the delicate sculpture of her living language, until with a gentle breath she stirs it to vibrate in a mellifluous melody.
For all of its poetic verve, don’t be fooled by an assumption of indulgence, of purpled flowers blossoming to tangle and choke the pace of Seema’s prose; she stays in control of this emotive and emotional journey to create both a compelling drama and a celebration of the human spirit.
This is a brave book, not least for the poetic expression the author uses, but also because Svera is none other than Seema herself. Fictionalised though it is, she reveals much of herself to the critical eye of her audience – and herself – as she airs her own struggle – her jang – to rise above an abusive relationship and reconnect with her self. The novel is as much Seema’s voyage of self-re-discovery – a mirror to her life – as it is Svera's and she invites us to keep her company along the way.
“So my mirror came to name itself Svera, meaning the dawn – an awakening – and Jang, meaning the battle. Svera Jang. I am not her now, but she was once me,” writes Seema as she embarks upon the novel.
“The more I wrote, the more I realised Svera was constantly fighting and searching for something. Hope? Longing? Desire? Or was it the freedom from those illusions? Hang on, hope is not an illusion. Or is it? I know I was searching for a place, a land where freedom prevails in its real sense. One thing was sure, it was a universal search. It started. It ended. It started and ended. It started over and over again. And again. A never-ending story of life, mapped out on the face of every breathing soul. The search for that total freedom of mind was her dream and the dream was her search.”
That’s something we can all share, if – like Svera, like Seema – we dare to look back at the path we trod and to face ourselves in the mirror. It’s called being human. It’s called life. And in this literary incarnation, it’s called Svera Jang.
11 September 2011
This review was written for one of my earlier blogs, The Word On The Wall, and posted there. The author informs me that the book is no longer available from the publisher listed here, but that she is looking to venture into Indie publishing for a future edition.