There are books that are light and easy, like sips of iced lemon tea on a warm day. There are other books that pull you in, punch you in the gut. ‘Tell A Thousand Lies’ is one such book. Shortlisted for the Tibor South Asia Prize, 2012 and written by first time author Rasana Atreya, you find you’re gripped, at least I was, I read the book in one stretch.
The book revolves around Pullamma, a naïve, innocent girl growing up in a village with her two sisters, brought up by their grandmother. When I read about the place, it was at first nostalgic, but quickly turned horrifying.
Pullamma is considered, by her grandmother and most others, to be much too dark and much too ugly to find herself a good husband. The girl recounts how her father, himself a specimen of the Beautiful People, looked at her when she was a baby, aghast (could this be his daughter?), fleeing to the Himalayas, claiming this was too much a shock to his system. Her sisters, however, escape this ‘malady’, much to the grandmother’s relief. On the occasion of the bride seeing off her elder sister, what starts out as not too strange- future mother-in-law complaining of the heat, future father-in-law demanding a scooter, cash, this and that- culminates in utter implausibility. Suddenly a screaming man runs in with a bundle, there is utter confusion, and something earth-shattering occurs- It is only later that the family comes to know- this is the first strike by the viciously self-serving politician Kondal Rao. The start of events at once bizarre and heartbreaking, our innocent is sucked into a vortex over which she has no control.
What makes this book stand out, in my opinion, is its honesty. Ms Atreya doesn’t cut corners, doesn’t overly preach either. In the book, it isn’t about challenging the entire system, it’s about what feminism hasn’t accomplished yet- hasn’t trickled down to everyone who needs it. The time our heroine spent in the home for supposedly ‘loose’ women brought my teeth on edge. It reminded me of that shattering movie ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, a shockingly revealing portrait of life in one of the Magdalene asylums, I watched it while I was in school, it stays with me to this day.
There is a constant feeling of pressure in the book- the clock ticking slowly- tick tock, the quick sound of footsteps behind you, your heart racing and your eyes terrified. One misstep and you’re off to the deep end. We run along with our heroine, clutching at each other like survivors on a poisoned island, when the disaster isn’t over yet and that ship is about to leave any moment.
One of the best parts of the novel is when Pullamma realizes – I don’t need to live this way. She’s right- nobody should have to. We’ve seen enough ads and inspiring movies to know that being plus-sized is beautiful and wrinkles are where smiles have been. Dusky is the new pretty, smart is the new cool.
Analogies apart, when you think about it, you realize how really unprotected you are. In a society teeming with unsavoury characters, what would you do it you were caught in the grips of one? You could fight it, but would you win? We can’t say yes yet, and that is our greatest weakness. That answer should come from our Pullammas, they still exist, even to this day.