The story. In Ananda Devi’s LE SARI VERT (Gallimard, 2009, 215 pages), old Dr. Bissam Sobnath, bedridden, is dying. His daughter Kitty, 62, and the latter’s daughter Mallika, 40, are around, not to help him pass away peacefully, but to pester him to reveal how his wife died at 20. Mystery surrounds her death. They want the truth. The doctor is compelled to relive a painful past.
Violence. The author draws for us the picture of a violent man. The doctor marries a girl of 17. Her cooking is horrible. “Ce riz gluant, ce poulet élastique ou à moitié cru” (p 25) drives him wild. He tears her lips with his fist. Disturbed by the baby’s crying, he beats up the wife as her lullaby is meaningless to him. Offended at “des lentilles carbonisées”, he furiously pulls her by the hair till her head strikes the table. “J’ai tiré encore et encore” (p 28) underlines the intensity of his anger and the wife’s plight. Instead of remorse, he experiences relief. Fed up with a disordered house, he uses a scalpel to slash the most-richly embroidered part of her sari. He presses the blade against her uncovered breast, while the baby is weeping in her arm, and witnesses with pleasure the drops of blood.
During a visit to a patient, he drags Kitty along with him. She’s tired. People offer her milk but she sleeps.
The milk falls on her. The doctor slaps her, the girl “a basculé comme un mannequin de bois” (p 38). They tell her she’s a child but he takes her home “tel un ballot de charbon” (p 38) and sends her to bed in her wet dress. The next day, the girl is covered with ants. He tells her she’s lucky; it could have been red ants that would have “mangé les fesses” (p 38). Violence is physical and verbal. Both are meant to hurt.
How can we explain his violence? He comes from a poor background and the wife comes from a well-to-do family. Class, therefore, contributes to the conflict. He expects her to be sharp-minded but she’s naive. He keenly desired a son but the child dies. Resentment gradually grows within him. He’s overcome by frustration. She doesn’t meet his expectations. Who is she? What are her merits? Why does she think she has the right to everything?
He’s a victim of his perception. Another person would have seen the humourous side of the wife’s cooking abilities but he dramatizes the situation. Idealistic, he fails to see that at 17, she’s immature. She enjoys laughing, he resents it. He imagines too many things for nothing. Milk spills over the child’s dress – he thinks it is degrading; people will take him to be the father of “une attardée” (p 38). He thinks his wife is making a fool of him. He’s a complicated character who is aware that his anger is taking him too far. It’ll lead to tragedy. The irony is that he does nothing to change his attitude. His behaviour borders on paranoia.
Who killed her nani? Mallika wants to know. In one stunning scene, she gags the grandfather, strips him of his pyjama and pours cane juice on him. She watches with sadistic delight the liquid trickling over him. Clashes with the dying man run throughout. Tension spreads through the pages. The women don’t mean to forgive him. We see characters wrestling with their dilemmas.
Animal Imagery. For the doctor, the women are “deux corbeaux femelles” (p 14). They symbolise persecution. They’ll not leave him alone till they chew his bones dry. Mallika is “plus bovine que jamais” (p 17), “maquerelle”, “une tisane d’herbe bourrique. Cueillie là où toute une portée de lapins a pissé » (p 74). The tone is mocking. His contempt manifests itself in the language. On her mother’s death, for the father, Kitty is just “un animal de compagnie” (p 34) who follows him like “un chien” (p 36).
Why are the women stressing him so much? They are “des chiennes en manque”, “dévoreuses”, “vampires ”, “parasites” (p 80). He once assaulted his wife ; after falling, she got up “comme un animal qui n’a pas tout à fait appris à se tenir sur deux pattes” (p 124). The brutal imagery accentuates the conflict apart from establishing growing distance. Why do they want to know something he wants to hide? Animal imagery is his way of demeaning them aloud or in his imagination.
Confessions. Mallika confesses she’s lesbian, knowing that it’ll hurt the man. Kitty confesses her childhood miseries to her daughter. This angers the latter and makes her hate him all the more. The doctor reveals that he threw badly-cooked food on his wife’s face but denies setting fire to her green sari. Confessions take us to the past and then we come back to the present and we go back again. This constant shift creates tension for the characters and maintains interest for the readers.
The doctor’s violent tendencies could also be a red herring, a literary device to lead us to believe he is the murderer. The author cleverly plants a false clue and we’re convinced that he’s guilty till the doctor reveals in an amazing twist that Mallika could have taken her mother’s life: “C’est toi qui as voulu qu’elle meure, cochonne, chienne! C’est toi qui étais jalouse d’elle, qui ne supportais pas que je l’aime ! ” (p 202). “Ne joue pas avec les allumettes, Kitty” (p 188).
Confessions lay bare the characters’ thoughts and feelings in their rawness. The man’s language is cruel because, we discover, they want him to take on himself the blame for the death. Confessions help to thicken the plot: we’ve hints of something fishy between the father and the daughter at the age of 15 or 16; “je la bordais dans son lit, (…) à me coucher auprès, contre, sur elle, à la serrer de plus en plus fort” (p 196). Mallika says that whether he killed or not, “tu as fait bien plus que cela” (p 201).
The novel is about troubled relationships and the quirks of human nature.