SONG OF THE CUCKOO BIRD by Amulya Malladi. Ballantine Books, December, 2005. Paperback, 384 pages. $13.95. www.randomhouse.com
Copenhagen-based writer, Amulya Malladi, says she has wanted to write Song of the Cuckoo Bird since she was 15. The world of the ashram has rutted grooves in the author’s imagination all these years. With an Indian officer father, Malladi and her family lived and traveled all over India but would often return to a certain ashram in Andhra Pradesh as a way of getting to know their home state. With no living grandparents to share the culture, Malladi found the ashram a world unto itself. While the book is fiction, Malladi admits that many of the characters were based on people that she remembers from the ashram. The writing of the novel consisted, in part, of long conversations with her mother, comparing memories, and clarifying details, which she then fictionalized and wove into the characters that inhabit Tella Meda.
“Ashrams in India are plentiful! And they are varied,” explains Malladi. “… some ashrams are like Tella Meda, part orphanages, part women’s shelter, part home for the elderly.”
Malladi has a lot of affection and respect for her characters, but none so much, it seems for the main character, Kokila (which means cuckoo bird), who first came to the ashram as an orphan just a month after her marriage. Her father’s friend, Ramanandam Sastri, lived there with his daughter Charvi, the self-described guru of Tella Meda. Malladi deftly takes us through Kokila’s entire life, and one in which she ends up very different than the way she began. Even more so than Charvi, the enigmatic, aloof, and self-stylized savior, Kokila possesses depth, nuances, and a dimensionality not readily seen in other characters. In many ways, Malladi has portrayed the beautiful but crumbling house as not only a home for the disenfranchised, but almost as a character all by itself:
A beautiful mahogany temple was the platform for a large golden Venkateshwara Swami and his consort, Lakshmi. Several other idols of gods and goddesses—Ganesha, the god of obstacles; Saraswati, the goddess of education—and a large marble Shivaling were arranged on mahogany platforms within the temple.
But while the house is beautiful and serene-looking, all the petty annoyances of its residents, living within close proximity with one another, are played out within the walls of the ashram. It is here that Kokila suffers the growing pains of a child and the heartaches of a woman. The bonds of female friendship both suffer and flourish throughout the years as the inhabitants of Tella Meda, predominantly women, come to realize that they have more in common than they had originally thought, and that woman is woman’s natural ally. In fact, this is a theme that compels the author:
“I like to write about people, usually women, trying to find their place in society, in their family, and finding out exactly who they are. I like writing about women who are not strong to start out with, but find strength by the end of the book. It’s all about changing, growing, and developing … usually, I hope, for the better.”
At the beginning of each chapter, Malladi chronicles the time period and the significant political changes that India experiences and brilliantly contrasts that with the insular life within the ashram. Since the inhabitants are “outside” of Indian society, they do not seem bound by the same rules. Sometimes the story defies what many people think of as acceptable behavior in Indian society: sex outside of marriage and under the ashram’s roof, a Brahmin son marrying a prostitute’s daughter, and a single woman adopting and raising a child. Malladi explains:
“I think this is harder to do in ‘normal’ society. Single mothers are still a very new and alien breed; and sex outside of marriage is now common but not accepted. A woman with a family would not have the freedom to have sex with a man she is not married to in her home; and neither would she be able to just go ahead and adopt a child as a single woman.”
In the final estimation, Malladi refreshingly does not make judgments on her characters. Instead, she lets readers decide for themselves if Kokila would have been better off living in a traditional marriage, or if the kind, but distant self-styled guru, Charvi, is a charlatan or just a victim of those who need to pin their hopes on a god so near.
The book ends with a conversation between Malladi and her mother, who she credits for helping her write the story. However, this isn’t really needed, and dampens the impact of an otherwise strong and emotional ending.
Malladi concedes that in India, “a woman’s role is, by and large, still defined as someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, and someone’s wife.” She portrays those who don’t benefit from such protection in society as making something beautiful, if hard won, out of their own life:
When Kolila looked back and remembered the people who had come and gone, there were so many who hadn’t had any impact on her; yet there were those who had broken her heart and there were those who had eased her sorrow. … This house, she thought, has had an interesting life.
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.