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Revolution in Sakina’s Kiss

Updated on: 19 February,2024 06:49 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Subtle and profound, author Vivek Shanbhag’s book explores, through fiction, the meaning that the idea of revolution holds for those whose faith in India’s democracy has been eroded

Revolution in Sakina’s Kiss

Vivek Shanbhag’s Sakina’s Kiss tackles three modes of transformation—individualistic, democratic and revolutionary

Ajaz AshrafVivek Shanbhag’s Sakina’s Kiss should be read as a novel that courageously depicts the lure, and relevance, of revolution in our democracy debased over time. This idea Shanbhag articulates through the story of a family whose members struggle to define who they are in a Karnataka besotted with the politics of religiosity that is reactionary in nature. At the end of Sakina’s Kiss, the character with whom you sympathise most is the one who rebels. 

Shanbhag does not give a name to the politics of religiosity, but the observations of the novel’s characters make it obvious it is Hindutva. After all, only its votaries have “so much patriotism that they have to flare out their chest and thump it”, and are “always looking for new enemies”. It is in this political-cultural milieu that Shanbhag examines, through fiction, the meaning that the idea of revolution has for those whose faith in India’s democracy as a vehicle for change has eroded.

Sakina’s Kiss tackles three modes of transformation—individualistic, democratic and revolutionary—through the story of husband Venkataramana, wife Viji, daughter Rekha and his paternal uncle Antanna. Socialised in rural Karnataka, Venkataramana studied in an engineering college in a city, where, after graduating, he shifts from one reasonably cushy job to another. “Dwindled to Venkat” in urban Karnataka, his rural-self pines to fit into the westernised, liberal environ and climb the corporate ladder. In this quest to slough off his rural-self and succeed, he takes recourse to self-help books. 

We know of Venkat’s past through the introspection he undertakes in the backdrop of Rekha disappearing from his natal village, where, on the family plantation, overseen by Antanna, she loves spending time during her breaks from college. As Venkat and Viji worryingly bus to the village, there is revealed the family’s secret—his father and uncle Antanna’s cunning appropriation of the inheritance of Venkat’s maternal uncle Ramana, who too is city-educated. 

But Ramana is the antithesis of Venkat. In contrast to Venkat’s individualistic obsession to have a flourishing career, Ramana sees “injustice in things small and large that no one else paid attention to—from the cups in which workers were served tea to their salaries”.  He looks at “everything through a magnifying glass” and finds exploitation driving social relationships.

Ramana articulates his thoughts in letters he writes to his sister—Venkat’s mother. His writing is pathetic; his squiggles difficult to decipher, often requiring multiple readings to make sense of the content, a trope for the meanings underlying the apparent. Through laboured endeavour Ramana’s thoughts become known to the family, such as, “A day will come when people will grow sick of it all. Their calls for justice will grow louder.”

Ramana’s quest for social justice prompts him to go underground, which is revealed through his farewell letter read out in a social gathering. There is much mirth as one of the illegible sentences is read as, “I find Sakina’s kisses preferable… I am not scared of Sakina’s kisses.” But this nonsense is ultimately decoded to: “I find getting killed preferable to falling into the hands of the police… I don’t know if you will ever see me again.” Ramana also discloses he has been living with a woman outside wedlock. Should she visit them, they should give her his inheritance, he writes before signing off, “I’m proud that this short life could be dedicated for a cause.”

Ramana’s is a meaningful life, for it is dedicated to fighting on behalf of those oppressed in the world’s biggest democracy. It is the path Venkat did not take, preferring to study engineering, which Ramana had described to him as aspiring for a “dull and ordinary life” that merely involves counting the salary. To Venkat, when in school, his would-be Maoist uncle had entreated: “Do something that changes the course of people’s lives. There is meaning in that.”

And now, with his career stalling, Venkat’s life is bereft of meaning. He lacks a moral core, for he has not yet taken steps to return—as his mother desired before her death—Ramana’s inheritance to his partner. Will he abide by his mother’s wish? The only bolster holding his hollowed-out self from crumbling is his quest to establish, slyly, his domination over Viji and Rekha. A new faultline in the family emerges as Viji and Rekha beseech Venkat not to vote for a politician wishing to impose a dress code on women. Will Venkat betray them? His decision will answer the question: Can societies with an undemocratic family structure spawn a truly democratic culture? Let me not give you the answers.

Suffice it to say that the promise of social change through the ballot can be a mirage, a myth. So can be the idea of revolutionary change, through which, however, a person has the possibility of transcending her/his self as s/he struggles to better the world around. This path might become Rekha’s, too. Sakina’s Kiss is a kiss for revolution, stunning in the era of Hindutva ascendancy, where deeper meanings of democracy are misread, as Ramana’s squiggles are, for justifying the illogic of the dominance the hollowed-out souls of India seek to acquire. Sakina’s Kiss is profoundly mysterious.

The writer is a senior journalist

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