The Edge of Another World
“I felt no fear and yet I shivered, suddenly feeling as if I had come up to the edge of another world.”
‘The Edge of Another World’ by Pepita Seth, pans out as a sweeping saga of the three women, Sophie, Ines and Thattakkutty, whose lives play out in different ways, but seem to criss-cross at certain junctures, as fascinating parallels bring their lives together, even if they never share space together.
The contemporary Englishwoman, Sophie Neville, whose mother’s death is more of an ending of everything, decides to go to Portugal, when “the whisper of an inner voice” tells her to risk changing her life. Evora’s Hotel Convent, “a paradise, untouched and natural” brings her peace of mind, as she finds a connection with the Cromeleque, an ancient arrangement of prehistoric monoliths, “standing stones, rough-hewn, lichen-covered.” It is there that, apart from certain mystical manifestations, she finds a heavily stained ivory figurine of a young girl with an enigmatic smile, and she wonders if it is the idol of a Hindu goddess there in the Alentjo in Portugal, or that of the Madonna, the Virgin.
When she, along with her guardian spirit, a black dog, walks into the tiny church in the courtyard of the hotel, she is amazed at the breathtaking depiction in glorious colours of the birth, life and death of the Virgin Mary. She meets Satishan Nambiar, who is there on a project to study the story of Portugal and its connection to Kerala. When he invites her to visit Malabar, the reader is aware of a faint premonition of events that are yet to unfold, a little while later.
When Sophie sees the name of Francis Neville in the hotel register, she re-admits thoughts of a father whom she had erased from her mind over twenty-five years, a father for whom she has no love lost. This strange coincidence sends her to Malabar, as she accepts Sathishan’s invitation to stay at his ancestral home, where she hears about the powerful Goddess, the Bhagavathi. When she actually witnesses the magnificent sight of the Koladhari carrying the Goddess and turning into Her, as the human element turns into the deity, Sophie realizes the ivory figurine has finally come home, and hands it over to Satishan.
Ines, the second of the women, lives in 16th century Portugal, a foundling who is found alive, covered in blood, in the rubble of a devastating earthquake, where she loses her mother. Even as she pulls her mother back from anonymity by “endlessly layering and embroidering” her reality, she forms a precious bond with Joaquina, who takes her into the house of Dom Martim and Dona Briolanga. Fed on the wondrous stories of Joaquina and the African slave, Balthazar, the little girl grows up along with Leonor, the daughter of the house, who is meant to go into the convent. Ines too has a strong bond with the Lady, her Mae, the Goddess who had watched over her since birth.
When Leonor and Ines enter their new life at the convent, they are drawn into “the welling of silence, an empty hush that comes like an enveloping cloud, caught ... as the day ends and sighs away”, a sanctuary where they are bound by silence. The ancient stones of the Cromeleque, draw Ines towards them, even as they “kept their secrets, silently watching me with their unseen eyes” making her feel safe and protected.
Lucas van Domburg, who is “if not handsome, good-looking and, if not young, at least not yet old” comes into Ines’s life when he comes to paint the frescoes of the Blessed Lady on the walls of the convent, and a fragile relationship develops between the two, as he paints her as the Virgin. However, circumstances beyond their control cause the young man to disappear. A tragic event takes place back home, and Ines’s life changes when Leonor is called back into the world to marry Dom Duarte da Cunha, who is stationed in India.
As Ines and Leonor, along with the protective Diogo, prepare to sail to Goa, Ines makes the acquaintance of the dark-skinned Thayathu Chandu whom she calls ‘Ammavan’ (Uncle), and his elephant, Kesavan . She carries a letter from him to his family in Malabar, and once again, circumstances beyond her control propel her from Goa to Malabar. A distraught Ines, buffeted with shocking losses, finds herself escorted by “an extraordinary, other worldly being... robed in red and crowned with a great headdress”, possessed of “an enormous and powerful energy” who leads her to her Ammavan’s tharavad (ancestral home), where another revelation awaits her. The Goddess Herself, the Bhagavathi, has come to her rescue, to lead her on to a new life, with new beginnings.
Thattakkutty is the third woman in the story, the Namboodiri Brahmin girl who lives in a life of seclusion, much like Ines’s in the convent, but here the restrictions, “the tightness of hidden tensions”, are those foisted on her by the conservative Keralite society in the days gone by. Once again, the Bhagavathi is a central figure in the lives of the household, and the young girl adores her with all her being. The birth of a female child creates tension in the household, even as Thattakkutty’s sister, Arya-edathi, brings disgrace upon herself, part of which is shifted onto Thattakkutty’s frail shoulders as well. However, she stands up to the accusations and feels the power of the Goddess in her, as she moves away from the fetters that have held her all these years, finding “a great and total peace” in the deepest core of her fears..
Pepita’s style is literary and lyrical, sections of her prose meander into the realms of poetry. An air of mystery suffuses the whole narrative, as the three women, from three different ages, contemplate the wonders of the Goddess in intensely personal ways. The story is akin to a jigsaw puzzle, where an unbroken pattern runs common through the lives of all three women... maybe in their fractured relationships, their devotion to a higher power, or their sensitivity that makes them all intuitive to strange visions that awaken awe but no fear in their minds.
‘The Edge of Another World’ is akin to the land it describes, of undulating plains, serene, with a feeling of ancient mysteries around, “full of the smells and perfumes of grasses and flowers, of the earth.” This is a book that delights the senses, even as it gently beckons the reader towards the edge of another world!
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