By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Sarayu Srivatsa’s If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here boasts a truly wonderful first chapter. It opens with Patti and Mallika, mother- and daughter-in-law, traveling to Madras to obtain a seed which will ensure that the baby Amma is carrying will be a boy. Superstition about the importance of a son is overpowering: “without the birth of a son in the family they would be reborn again and again as snakes or rats, or even mosquitoes, into this cruel world.” But Mallika does not want a son, and so she sabotages the superstitious procedure and duly gives birth to a set of twins which should satisfy everyone: a boy and a girl. And here’s where the novel’s tragedy lies; while the son, Siva, survives, the daughter, Tara, dies soon after birth, in her father’s arms, and Mallika never recovers.
If You Look For Me is a novel about relationships, and the crushing impact of fractures in those bonds. Siva longs for his mother’s love, but her heartbreak over the loss of Tara overcomes any maternal instinct for her remaining child; indeed, she calls Siva by his sister’s name and treats him as a girl when she speaks to him at all. With his father occupied with his work in malaria research, and his grandmother slightly too shrill to be of comfort, Siva seeks solace in Tara, who lives on as a voice in his mind.
Whispers soaked into the walls told me that my sister had died the day I was born. Her name was Tara.
But Amma called me Tara. And Appa called me Siva. Patti called me both Tara and Siva. I was both a boy and a girl to her. Only I didn’t know whether I was a boy pretending to be a girl or the other way around. I was four years old.
Inevitably, then, Srivatsa’s novel is also deeply concerned with identity, particularly in terms of gender. At the center of the story is Siva’s struggle to understand his own identity, and, as a consequence, it’s a question the reader continually considers too. On the one hand, he is not enough, having been rejected by his mother for not being a daughter; on the other, he is both son and daughter, enacting a dizzying array of roles depending on which family member he is with. While I don’t expect a fictional character to adopt one identity in order to satisfy my own need for order, I did find myself becoming caught in an ever more complicated thought process relating to Siva’s gender confusion and how it manifests itself; sometimes dressed as a girl by his mother and believing his lost twin to reside in his mind, how much of Siva’s struggle actually comes from his own feelings? Much of Siva’s attraction to the feminine stems from the belief that his mother would love him if only he could be a girl. One instance that stands out is the section in which he slashes his finger and smears the blood on his underwear in order to convince Mallika he has begun to menstruate. It’s a sign of both characters’ tragic psychology that this sees them closer than at any point in the novel.
“Leave my child alone,” Amma said. “Please leave her alone. Tara’s got her periods. She is a big girl now.”
Appa stood motionless for a minute as though he had been stung. It was as though a dam had burst within him. He held Amma by the shoulders and shook her as Patti would a pickle jar. With sadness in his eyes Appa raised his hand, stroked Amma’s hair. “Tara died. Look at him, he’s Siva, not Tara.”
Away from the Siva’s main narrative, Mallika’s mental unravelling continues, underpinning the tragedy of the novel’s opening; this strand of the story is as heartbreaking as it is compelling. The other offshoots of the main plot are less successful, with Siva’s father remaining largely undeveloped; aside from his scientific obsession with mosquitoes, I find myself struggling to remember anything about him. Different characters encounter the journal of George Gibbs, the Englishman in whose former home Siva’s family resides; ultimately, this journal seems to echo the events of Siva’s life, but the exact point of this narrative intersection also remained unclear.
If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is an intriguing novel, and it’s often beautifully written; these aspects provided me with enough enjoyment that the more confusing parts of the book can be overlooked. It’s a very effective study of a family in turmoil, in which it is possible to sympathize with every affected character, even when their motivations are unclear.