To read a work of fiction that is drenched with splendid lines, intense examination of human complexity and a scathing criticism of a country’s systemic failures isn’t easy. CP Surendran’s latest novel, Hadal, is all of this, including being a compelling, difficult read.
Hadal, a word referring to oceanic depths greater than 6000mts, is a befitting title for a book that is, constantly, wave after wave of tight story-telling, and imagery that has lent itself deftly to the author’s will.
Honey Kumar, a police officer who is transferred to Thiruvananthapuram after being accused of graft, might be called the protagonist of the book, but only just. A deeply complex man constantly in denial of everything within and without him -- a fact that repeats itself in his addiction to cough syrup, his compulsive grip and dwelling on a painful past, and an affinity for masks – Honey Kumar makes life miserable for Miriam Zacharias, a Maldivian national and an aspiring writer, who has come to Kerala in order to finish her book.
In a classic plot development, Honey Kumar propositions Miriam when he realizes she needs her visa extended; when the attractive Maldivian woman says no, Honey Kumar is unable to take rejection and goes down a destructive, vengeful path. Slighting him further is obvious proof that Miriam is having an affair with Paul Roy, a suave, charmer of a scientist who is also the director of an ISRO centre.
Honey Kumar, in pure rage and evil pain, puts two and two together and comes up with 35, thereby throwing Miriam and Paul into a spy-scandal whirlpool entirely of the police officer’s making.
If your memory goes back to the news from the 90s, the above synopsis will tell you that the book is based on the infamous ISRO espionage case where a scientist was kept in custody and tortured after being accused of passing on secrets to a Maldivian woman. It took nearly six years for the case to be dropped and considered baseless. The risk one runs with rooting a book in a true life incident is that readers tend to expect a spiced-up version of the sequence of events. If that’s what you are looking for in Hadal, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. Make no mistake, the ISRO espionage case only serves as a starting point for the meditative but rakish ride this book is.
Replete with detailed boxing references, Hadal carries an almost ghost-narrative of pain; masterfully sculpted meditations of the various kinds of pain a human being can experience. From Honey Kumar’s never-ending trauma at his mother’s near-comical death, his being caned as a child by Father Almeida (and his cruel, cruel taunt when the former visits the priest later in life) to the physical agony that the author puts Miriam, Paul, Honey Kumar’s left foot, an American anti-nuclear activist Haws and even a dog through, pain is a recurrent and startling theme. Sweat, rain, and even a drink become painful as does the book’s reading, but only because of the keen, uncomfortable truths it holds.
Marriage is the other idea that the book criticises. All the marriages in the book are crumbling relics: oppressive, unnecessary and soulless. Miriam, herself somewhat cold, is married to an alcoholic college professor who has been unemployed since the recent change of regime in her country. Paul Roy is married to the irascible Grace, and is himself a bit of a philanderer. Honey Kumar’s parents’ inter-caste, inter-community marriage is passingly referred to as a mistake. Ram Mohan, Honey Kumar’s erudite, deeply sensitive and thinking boss, lives in a marriage that he is sure will kill him. His wife Anita is said to be heartless and, in a shocking moment of realization on Ram Mohan’s part, completely wrong for the role of spouse and parent. Just like him. In detailing Ram Mohan’s marital trajectory, the language is often martial and you sense a parody, a role reversal, of the popular woman-stuck-in-a-bad-marriage stereotype. If Hadal’s characters are all heavy, burdened individuals careening to their inexorable fates along with the soul-searing rain that is constant in the narrative, the passingly-mentioned Anita is possibly the only one who seems empowered as she removes herself more and more from Ram Mohan’s life. Anita, and Vasu, an almost silent presence in the book.
The book’s greatest diatribe, however, is against the way systems in India work. Corruption, complete failure of humanity, a lack of basic facilities for its citizens and the scary things power and its illicit handling can do are all attacked in Hadal in biting, ironic, fluid passages that creep up on you, take hold and, sometimes, make you laugh in surprise. Take, for example, an exchange between Ram Mohan and Honey Kumar at a point in the narrative where the former believes that all might not be as he thought.
“Honey Kumar, what do we think we are doing?”
“Getting to unearth an espionage racket?” …
“What’s the fundamental problems we face as a people?
Toilets? Sixty percent of India defecated in the open. “Corruption?”
Dialogue between characters, in my opinion is incidental, in the book. There's no painstaking detailing of interaction between characters that furthers the story, no pauses and extensions. The more important dialogue, in fact, is an internal one. A constant making sense of the world they inhabit, a consistent attempt at understanding their own motivations, confusions, ruminating their fates, deciding their futures. There are no pauses in those dialogues; the relentless seeking of whatever resolution Miriam, Honey Kumar or Ram Mohan undertake is a constant gentle assault in the book, with no room to breathe.
Speaking of relentless, the rain in Hadal is something else. A giant green monster breathing heaving and groaning at the universe and the machinations it holds within its belly. Read carefully enough, you can hear the rain long after you've finished the final pages of the book. Surendran's pen is perhaps most keen and strong here; the rain is a character in itself, almost influencing gently, like a reluctant, ancient puppeteer everything that happens in the book, in one way or another.
Silences in any book interest me and while this book is anything but silent (it is, in fact, worlds colliding), there are spaces and silences that I want to walk into and explore. Is there any truth to Ram Mohan feeling victimised in his marriage? Is Honey Kumar worthy of pity or should we revile him? What is Vasu's double life? Why does Miriam choose to go back on a safer path? What does Honey Kumar see in Ram Mohan that he offers kindess and deference to him that he extends to no one else? But silences are always telling and these form alternate stories that for me to personally explore, if I choose to.
Much like the author, the book is eminently quotable; but Hadal holds back in certain places: how it portrays its women, the forceful seeking of resolution and the inexplicable sadness of some of its characters. Surendran’s craft is impeccable, as you will discover, to your delight, in the many, many heart-stoppingly poetic lines in the book. Clever, unselfconscious word play peppers many chapters. (“Waxed legs, and veined too.”) Balancing poetic perfection, then, is humour that is subtle and wicked, coupled with a sense of irony that is reminiscent of M Mukundan, and dare one say, Marquez. The latter’s influence is also seen in the effortless weaving of absurd reality, and fantastical imaginings that the characters induce in their minds either through circumstance or substance. Or plain geriatric illness.