Former Assistant Secretary General, United Nations Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri's debut novel Swallowing The Sun is a vast, evocative, multigenerational saga interspersed with the freedom movement. Within the political undercurrents, the novel brings forth a feminist coming-of-age tale with its theme even relevant today making Puri's ambitious project a must-read contemporary novel. However, at its heart, the novel is a love story—a romance with self, and with India.
"Swallowing The Sun draws upon history but it is as contemporary as it can be. We are at the cusp of history right now as much as we were then. We have the largest young population in the world and we must utilise that. We have to tap the young people’s power, and they too must dip into the reservoirs and be self-aware, self-reliant and perceive to be the agents of change and progress," said Puri in an interview with SheThePeople.
Swallowing The Sun, which stretches across decades from 1918 to 1949 at the backdrop of the freedom struggle, follows the journey of Malati and her sister Kamala―from a village in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, where they were born, to a boarding school in Indore, and to Bombay and Banaras. The independence movement, which they become part of, also forms the backdrop that shapes their worlds, ideas and lives. However, at its core, the novel is a feminist story which Puri very much attests is the consequence of her upbringing and her work at the United Nations.
"The meta-theme of this novel is that everyone can realise their highest potential, everyone can make miracles, attain the untrainable. My women characters demonstrate the same in many ways, whether it is Malti or Kamala. They fight school bullies, climb mango trees, finish school, go to Elphinstone College, become a lawyer, and fight for freedom fighters, But it is also about remarkable men who support them, sometimes reluctantly, and sometimes to break from the patriarchal mindsets," she said.
Lakshmi M Puri Interview: 'Feminist Men exist'
The novel is indeed populated by feminist, supportive male characters, a rare sight in pop culture today. My favourite is the understated Baba, Malti and Kamala's father who did not shy away from advocating the right to education for his girls. His unfailing support of Malati and Kamala to break out of the traditional mould is nothing short of an inspiration. When I bring it up to Puri, she nonchalantly mentions the men in her novel are very much real-life inspirations and not inventions.
"Everyone is human, nothing is black and white, of course there are ego issues, there is the weight of patriarchy and so it happens that there might be relapses but men like Baba, Guru, and Shyam existed then and they exist today as well. What men must understand is that women’s aspirations and equality will actually be a greater source of happiness for both of them," adds Puri.
The foreward in her novel encapsulates the same
Ardhanarishwar - that there is a nari and a purusha in all of us and that a man can be as vulnerable as a woman can be strong. That in a man–woman relationship there is a constant intermeshing of domination and surrender, love and sacrifice, self-realization and affirmation by the other! That we in life as in love keep drawing boundaries—the Lakshman Rekhas—only to dissolve them, sometimes with guilt and other times with abandon"
Swallowing The Sun is an immersive experience to understand the growing ambitions of women. It is also a tribute to many love stories - parental, a partner's, a friend's and above all selfhood. Puri in her parting words wants women to make their choices consciously and loudly proclaims all women should be educated, a clear message in the book as well.
"Education is the way to our salvation. We can do anything, provided we get the right kind of education. Make your choices consciously and have a vocation of your own. You may go in for family life, but have something to do on your own even if you choose to be a housewife. I remember in real life my mom gave up working and she always regretted it. Hence, when I joined foreign services, she told me never to give up my profession. Once you have tasted this high of being someone in your right, it is very difficult and demoralising to not be that. That is my only message for young ladies, equip yourself to be in your own right," she concludes.