You were right to tell me that in life it is not the future which counts, but the past.”
― Patrick Modiano, Missing Person
Review Appeared at Tengo.in by Hersh Bhardwaj
Is there anything else a writer attempts to do successfully than to be constantly fixated on the past; attempting to veer ahead yet being helplessly conscious of its futility? Ira Singh’s characters live through such moments of pain, where the past has failed them and all that constituted it already has, or, is falling apart in the literary present.
Nobel-winner Patrick Modiano’s protagonist in Missing Person , too, aspires to weave together the distant and haphazard past event of a self gone missing, only to realize that the act of consolidating the past is at best summarized by Eliot’s famous lines from The Wasteland- gathering ‘heaps of broken images’ and a furtive endeavor to ‘mix memory with desire’.
‘She sees her father strapped down…hears her mother’s prayers…It is Vicky, her brother in a panic…”
Pilgrimage opens with the present moment of crisis holding a portrait of a disintegrated past. Monica is in an ambulance taking her dying father to a hospital. The Hindu-pilgrims of Shiva or the Kanwarayias have devoured the road ahead and traffic, including the ambulance, is at a standstill. Monica is stuck in a temporal and spatial soup where all social constructs have failed her and the baggage of memory serves her not.
Just as Modiano’s literary world is not about what is, but actually about what is-not, so too do gaps, blanks, negative spaces, and the non-present fill Ira Singh’s pages. Where Monica finds herself at the start of the novel is the sum-total of her past. A rather general sounding statement that applies to all of us but becomes interesting when applied to a novel structured in three parts going further backwards in time.
The novel starts with the section titled Pilgrimage, which is the ‘present’- the sum total of all that has happened at a literal and metaphorical level in Monica’s life. The second part is Transgression- narrated partly in the first -person-past and partly in the first-person present tense. The last part, Punishment, is told entirely in the second-person present past, using `you’.
This whole technical arrangement is deliberate, a style of narrative that suggests how a human psyche recalls and makes sense of memory. The only two episodes which Monica feels in the present are the falling of the two most powerful symbols-incidentally both men-her father and her boyfriend Ajay.
The last part, Punishment, which happened earliest in her life, is as if told by someone else, almost suggesting that adolescence and the formative years are entirely the construct of someone else- both in reality and even in the memory of that reality. It is as if someone else wrote the script. Sadly, it often presents itself as a punishment for a sin committed elsewhere.
Monica’s search for meaning ends up as a ‘formative experience of powerlessness’[ mentioned in the epigraph, from Rachel Cusk’s Transit] Yes, ‘powerlessness’ is where she is at the start of the novel- stuck in an ambulance with a hapless mother, absent brother, and dying father. Both the patriarchal and the religious symbols of the world created for her finally crumble. Her mother’s prayers won’t be heard and the Kanwariyas on the road are painfully delaying the inevitable.