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February 19, 2016

Exclusive Extract: Kiran Manral’s The Face At The Window

Text by Huzan Tata. Compiled by Natasha Sahjwani

Here is an exclusive glimpse into Kiran Manral’s new work of fiction releasing this month…

The author’s fifth book is a work of fiction that explores themes of identity and belonging. Verve talks to Kiran Manral about her novel, current reads and happy endings.

1. Tell us something about The Face At The Window. Have the characters or events been inspired by people or incidents from your life?
“The book is completely fictional, but while growing up, I did hear my mother speak a lot about the schools she taught at in the hills up North. My mother-in-law also comes from there, and from her I heard stories of the people, of life in the region, of ghosts and chudails and bewitchments. The region has always fascinated me, and when I went there for the first time few years ago on holiday, the actual experience coagulated into The Face At The Window, a story about a lady searching for herself at the end of her life.”

2. Which character was hardest to create?
“I think it would be the main protagonist, Mrs McNally. I had to crawl into her skin and feel and be her, in order to write her – she is nothing like anyone I know. And she has a mind of her own, she has done things I never expected her to do, and she wanted her story to be told.”

3. Your last two books were romance novels. What has the shift to a new genre been like?
“This book actually was written before I wrote All Aboard. It just kept going through revisions. I’ve written humour, romance, chick lit, non-fiction and parenting books before this. I don’t think I really think about a genre when I’m writing but leave it to the world to assign one to it.”

4. Do labels affect you in any way?
“In terms of labels, there is that scathing dismissal of me being a ‘chick lit’ writer, which I’ve now developed a thick skin about.”

5. How important is a happy ending in literature?
“In romance, yes, a happy ending is essential, because the very genre demands hope and catharsis. I think a story that moves you and makes you wonder is key, and how it ends plays a large part in how a book makes you feel once you’ve read it. Some not-so-pleasant endings can also provide emotional catharsis, as can happy ones.”

6. You’re currently reading…?
“I just finished Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy, The Grownup by Gillian Flynn and The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur. I tend to be a peripatetic reader who reads three to four books simultaneously. So also on my bedside are Dark Things by Sukanya Venkatraghavan and Ashoka the Great by Wytze Keuning, which is a massive tome. In the midst of all this, there’s also Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, both of which I am rereading.”

 

Read an extract from her latest book below.

At fourteen, I did not know what that shame was, a shame that came from not having the moral courage to own up to one’s mistakes. At seventy-eight, I knew that shame only too well. I lived that shame every single day of my dying years.

I would piece together the relationship between my parents much later, through conversations with the staff at the Chaudharipore Estate’s office in Calcutta, comprising a typist and a peon, and a manager who had seen my father grow from a stripling boy to a young man with a tea business to manage. He had a balanced head that unfortunately got swayed by a momentary dalliance begun in a moment of indiscretion, which would eventually become the one thing that would haunt him for the rest of his life. My father did get married to a suitable girl chosen for him by his parents and lived out a few years playing at being a householder, but the docile, young girl in a sari would remain just a momentary prop in his life, a prop who passed away during a long and painful labour, made worse because her husband showed interest in neither her well-being nor that of the child pushing weakly out of her. The baby got stuck in the birth canal and both mother and child died before the nearest doctor could cycle up from his home a few kilometres away from the estate. That was all I knew about my father’s story, and I knew even less about my mother.

My grandmother would have been amazed that I ended up here, on the outskirts of a plantation, at the other end of the country, given that all I had wanted in the years I lived with her was to escape back to the city. Life turns and comes full circle, one returns to one’s beginnings in some form or the other. For me it was this silent home, in the middle of nowhere, where the night sounds echoed in the stillness outside, like it had so many years ago at the estate in Chaudharipore, terrifying me, a city-bred girl, with its absolute isolation.

It was still raining here, outside my little cottage in this lonely stretch of road. A steady drip above my head alerted me to the fact that the roof could be leaking again and we might see a puddle on the landing in the morning. I picked up the bedside clock and pressed a button on the top to check the time. It lit up as if by magic and showed me that it was three-fifteen a.m. The witching hour. The dream demons had never quite left me, but now they seemed to have settled themselves comfortably in my brain, clearing out nooks and crannies where they made themselves at home and surfaced now and then to give me a dream that would have me spring up from a supine position, with my heart slamming into my ribcage and then thudding violently enough to cause a physical ache in my chest.

Thunder was rolling through the mountains, making the windows rattle in their loose panes and lightning jagged virulently, splitting the skies into an apocalyptic chiaroscuro of light and shade, of hope and despair, a mottled landscape of an alien world beyond the clouds where lives were not mortal and death was not final. A chill crawled up my spine. An unexpected sound made me sit up in bed, it sounded like a rap. I put my spectacles on and gingerly moved my legs out of the warm bed. I like to think I am spry for my age, but sometimes my joints let me down, they lock into painful rigidity and render me immobile for a while, until they finally concede to let me move again. Today was one of those days. I had to wait for the spikes of pain to slowly dissolve and the joints to flex before I could get my body to rise, for the knees to take the weight of the torso, now rapidly shrinking into slack skin over bone. Old age is cruel, the mind moves faster than the body does, one feels trapped inside an unresponsive bodysuit not of one’s choosing, crumpled, creaky, a mockery of what one once was. I clutched the side table for support and wrapped the warm flannel robe kept on the chair by the bedside around me and belted it, noting absently to myself that the belt was taking up less space than it normally did, I was shrinking into myself. I heard it again, the rap at the window pane, or was it hailstones that made the sound? No, this was just one rap, sharp, clear, defined and insistent, not the shower of knocks one associated with the occasional rain of hail. I pulled the curtains to a side and looked out through the glass at the rain pelting down fiercely, making the dark outside a nowhere land of blackness. And then the rap again, inches from where I stood, startling me out of my skin.

‘Who is it?’ I asked, moving again to open the window. ‘Kaun hai?’ I put my head out, the raindrops fell on my spectacles, obscuring my vision for the instant. There was no one to be seen. No one. Just the blackness of the night, obliterated by the sheet of rain falling grimly, blurring a view already obscured by the pitch blackness of the night and the cloying pervasiveness of the fog. I put my head back into the room, away from the water pouring outside, and closed the windows. Lightning flashed again and a face stared at me from the window, pressed against the sheet of glass. A face that seemed disturbingly familiar, but appeared uncertain of being welcomed.

A face with glistening, red eyes that pierced right through me, she stood there… suspended in mid-air. My window overlooked a drop. There was no way any person could have stood there. I gasped, a choked, clawing gasp, and stumbled backwards into the room unable to tear my eyes off her. My leg caught the edge of the rocking chair, and I fell hard and noisily onto the floor. I felt my ankle twist beneath me and a searing pain stabbed my ribs, making me scream out loud. The face at the window floated as I looked on, too terrified to take my eyes off her. I could hear her voice in my head, calling out my name in a sibilant tone, a voice that was not human, a voice I could hear but not with my ears. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound emerged. I could hear sounds of people stirring out of their beds, feet rushing along the passage, the click of a light switch, and hushed voices asking what had happened. An urgent knocking on the door. The hands from the red-eyed thing at the window reached in and closed around my neck. A high-pitched scream was the last thing I heard before the world went black on me. It was my own.

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