Empowered” is a gutsy and gritty adjective that some women have the luxury of being heralded with. But do all these women set out to be “empowered” or do circumstances simply tread them along a trailblazing path, which perhaps was the only path available to them, towards something as basic as self-preservation?
Author Veena Rao, in her debut novel Purple Lotus, unravels the journey of one such woman, who embarks on a seemingly normal journey but is forced to summon her inner strength as she plunges into valleys of anguish, to eventually elevate herself to summits of triumph.
Purple Lotus unfolds the life and times of protagonist Tara, much like the title flower that rises from the mud, blooms out of the darkness, and radiates into the world, in a soothing tone of absolute resolve to remain unaffected by the sludge that surrounds her.
The choice of the title plays quite a pronounced role throughout the narrative, both literally and symbolically. Tara, the lotus (literal translation), finds herself in muddy waters right from the get-go, when her beloved doll, Pinky, goes missing during the family’s move to Mangalore. Even as she bears the brunt of missing her friends and her priced doll, she watches in helplessness as her parents move to Dubai in pursuit of a bright future for the family, leaving behind Tara with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them.
Amidst desolation, Tara ironically finds solace from her uncle in his moments of clarity when his mind is not bogged down by the disease. Tara even finds love in its warmest of forms in Cyrus Saldanha, only to be forced to let go when her parents return to Mangalore.
Rao submerges Tara in more of life’s slush in the form of Sanjay. The seed of abandonment seeped into Tara’s being at a tender age reaps its bounty as she is bound in a loveless and abusive marriage with Sanjay, a groom her parents picked for her, mostly because she was getting beyond the “marriageable” age and he was willing to marry without any bridal dowry (gifts). Her trials continue to mount as Sanjay’s indifference gradually turns into violence and Tara is forced to accept the kindness of American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances.
Tara begins to bloom, when, in a moment of truth, she discovers the prominence of her own esteem and worth, turning towards the light, setting herself free from conforms of her community as she reconnects and eventually marries her childhood love, Cyrus.
The journalist in Rao shines through in the last chapter as she wraps up the novel with a fitting “article” by Tara that confronts a victim-shaming society. “Not all monsters are egregious. Some stay hidden in plain sight,” writes Rao’s Tara, pointing to not just to the perpetrators of crime against women, but also a spiteful society in general and a venomous close circle of the victim, in particular, that crushes the victim’s spirits, driving them into a deeper abyss of despair.
Purple Lotus, an emblem of peace of tranquility, maintains a calm undertone throughout, staying faithful to its symbolic title. The wave of calm is evident in many instances, such as the incident where Tara forgives a friend who intentionally hurt her in childhood, when the friend admits it was her fault, despite the immense pain it had caused her at the time. Rao’s strength in writing is her ability to maintain the mellow milieu even as she powerfully propagates empowerment, confronts social stigmas, and deals with deeply disturbing feelings of dejection, rejection, and desertion with grace and poignance. Rao scores extra brownie points for the character development of Tara and her ensuing transformation. Never rushed or overtly dramatic, the growth is refreshingly organic and effortlessly relatable.
I particularly enjoyed the bonding between women, who, despite their own shortcomings, offer courage, companionship, and care to each other, forging sisterhood far beyond blood and borders.
The streets of Mangalore and Atlanta come alive, as does the food of the regions served up by its inhabitants, sometimes hearty like the abundant love and support she relishes, and sometimes spicy, like their harsh attitude she endures, all of which become companions of Tara’s tumultuous journey.
This charmingly simplistic chronicle explores the many dimensions of the human mind and mindset of society, and the consequences of each, which may turn out to be tragic or triumphant.
“I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I have for myself,” Tara writes about herself.
In the age of social media, where kids are bullied, and adults are shamed by nameless cowards who hide behind their firewalls, and sometimes openly, just because they feel entitled to do so, could use the same realization to emerge victorious amidst the very soiled “victimization of victims”, as Rao puts it, and bloom into a glorious, serene lotus, a rare purple lotus even.
Jyothsna Hegde is a City News Editor at NRI Pulse newspaper and an independent software consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and has served as faculty at Towson State University. It gives her immense pleasure to share triumphs and tribulations of the indomitable human spirit through her writing.