Himalayan Gothic: Haunted lives and loves in the hills (Book Review)

Title: The Face at the Window; Author: Kiran Manral; Publisher: Amaryllis; Pages: 245; Price: Rs.250

Could there be anything common between the elderly Anglo-Indians, usually women, who taught many of us of a certain age and background, and the mountains? An imposing presence for one, but also a sense of aloofness, of mysteries concealed. Putting together such a character and setting, and adding the most haunting ghosts (those of past loves), could well result in a chilling – and plaintive – tale.

And this is what Kiran Manral offers in her fourth novel – a dark brooding story of mysterious, concealed identities, consequences of lack of familial bonding and support, of unsuitable and unsustainable loves, of the burdens of the past and its regrets, of toxic secrets, and the twilight of a life lived fully but not very happily.

Add to that the first throes of adolescent infatuation, characters with private agendas or harbouring their own secrets, a case or two of spirit possession, human remains being unearthed and a “malevolent” visitation, and Manral may have very well pioneered the “Himalayan Gothic” genre – with the majestic and silent mountains serving as an adequate substitute for the old, atmospheric mansions.

The story is told from the viewpoint of retired school teacher Mrs McNally, living alone in a small town in the Himalayan foothills at the fag end of her life, and wondering whether she should or not reveal the devastating secrets she has been carrying long about her estranged daughter Millie and grand daughter Nina to them.

Though she has been typing out an account of her life, she keeps it hidden. And then late one night she is woken – while a violent rainstorm rages – by what seems a rap on her window, but can’t see any one, even after opening it and looking outside.

But then there is another flash of lightning and then “a face stared at me from the window, pressed against the sheet of glass. A face that seemed disturbingly familiar… A face with glistening, red eyes that pierced right through me, she stood there… suspended in mid-air” since the window overlooks a sheer drop.

It is right from then, her life slowly starts spiralling out of control. Not only does this malevolent entity come into the house and tries to kill her, it possesses a young local girl living nearby, as well as (briefly) Nina, who also senses the presence.

Why does this malevolent presence seek to do harm to her, and whose skeleton is it that is uncovered near their cottage during digging to lay new water lines? On the other hand, was it a mistake to accept the young personable doctor’s offer to drive down her granddaughter to school, and is the writer, who has rented the cottage behind and driven to her one thundery night to seek refuge, what he seems to be? And what are the devastating secrets Mrs. McNally hidden all her life?

It is all these questions that are slowly unpeeled, layer by layer, in this complex tale, which is by turns, spine-chillingly spooky, and other times, heart-wrenching, but always rendered in Manral’s expressive and evocative language.

Be it the similes – “memories as thick as molasses and as bitterly sweet” – or vivid descriptions that instill a sense of apprehension – “..lightning jagged virulently, splitting the skies into an apocalyptic chiaroscuro of light and shade, of hope and despair, a mottled landscape of an alien world beyond the clouds where lives were not mortal and death was not final” or “.. there was a disturbing quiet in the house. Or as much quiet as these old houses can have, before something wakes them up again in the dead of the night… a sense of disquiet with the tree brushing its leaves against the roof, like a lover’s lingering touch, even after the goodbyes have been said ..”, the author always holds you entranced – right to the inevitable end.

This dark tale of the psyche, relationships and the need to belong is totally different from Manral’s previous four books – three novels and an account-cum-manual of child-rearing that “out-Bombecks” Erma – but no less engrossing. While she makes you laugh before, don’t miss letting her frighten you now!

(22.03.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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