"Someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift."
It takes a gifted writer to be able to create an imaginary island and etch it so precisely that it appears real to her readers. Radhika Tabrez does just that as she fleshes out an Indian paradise called Bydore and populates it with lifelike characters like Susan Pereira who is bound to Pereira Mansion and her father’s promise, Deena, a close friend and her feisty daughter Shahana, and Colonel and Mrs. Bindra, all of whose lives are blended together effortlessly. “They all could sense the chasm in each others’ hearts” and “their mutual need for succour”, a need that made them family.
It is into this family that a grievously wounded Meera is brought in, and over time, Susan turns into her anchor, touched by “the forlornness in Meera’s eyes” which made her “hear the echoes of her own life”. Their lives fuse as the pieces of a puzzle coming together, and Meera throws herself into running Susan’s book store ‘A New Chapter’, as she tries to erase the horrific shadows in her past.
Life turns around when Susan’s estranged son, Matthew, sets foot on the island due to unforeseen circumstances. He walks in through “the iron gate that had served as his first ever swing”. And this is when the reader realizes just how significant and poignant the cover of the book is, with the image of the rusty blue iron gate that serves as a symbol of the flavour of everything that Matthew’s childhood was made up of.
Radhika Tabrez’s characters live and breathe, whether it is Susan with “the most angelic smile”, Deena who is “a magician with ladles and woks”, the Colonel “a man with incisive truth” or Matthew’s steadfast friends, Vidushi and Maanav. The deft characterization makes them appear as familiar figures as they walk their way along their own paths, yet held together by a thread called Susan Pereira.
One letter, “yellowed with age, crumpled along the edges from the many hands it had exchanged in the journey to reach Matthew”, from a mother to her son, changes the tenor, as Susan describes events that had transpired twenty years ago, events that had changed their lives almost irrevocably. A bitter and unrelenting Matthew, “the ‘One’ across the sea, expects to find himself judged by his mother’s friends, but finds acceptance in many ways.
There are moments of intense pathos that dot the book, as broken souls move tentatively forward to try and find closure, even as the letter serves as a guidepost, telling Matthew how to react to every significant juncture. There is a beautiful description of how he feels “trapped in a snow globe, and everything around him has been shaken violently out of its place”.
Radhika’s Good Samaritan instincts come across in her writing as various relationships come together in an attempt to benefit society. This novel works at various levels, as friendships turn deeper, emotions blaze their way across the tale and there could be no more profound quote for Susan’s life than the one chosen with so much care, from The Tale of Two Cities:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
When the book has been read and savoured over a cup of cinnamon tea, the reader also heaves a sigh of contentment, having taken a leap of faith and crossed over from the dark into the light.