Dark Circles is a haunting tale of family struggles with painful secrets
After two decades in the media business, as a television anchor and as a managing editor, Udayan Mukherjee, now based in both Mumbai and Uttarakhand, has just released his debut novel, Dark Circles. This is a haunting and complex story of a family struggling with painful secrets, and the devastating consequences of actions that occurred long ago.
Most of the action in Dark Circles is set in the bustling city of New Delhi. This is a book that will appeal to all Delhiites, and not just because of its references and descriptions of well known localities such as Safdarjung Enclave and Maharani Bagh, and its depictions of the fast-paced city lifestyle. It will also strike a chord with Delhi readers for also for its insights into the darker aspects of the capital, such as the restlessness the one of the protagonists, Sujoy feels, and the glimpses of poverty that one sees even in ostensibly affluent sections of the city.
A large part of the novel also takes place in the mountains of Mukhteshwar, where Sujoy and his older brother Ronojoy have a family home, where they at times retreat to. As Mukherjee says, this is something which seeps from his own experience.
"I had come out of a very hectic life in Mumbai, and I came to Kumaon to be away from all that. I spend all my time here, except in the rains, and deep snows, which is when I go to Mumbai." Mountains have a decided presence in the book, as all the protagonists can only find peace in them, and looking at them.
There is a flip-side to this peace however, as Subir, the father of the two brothers knows. As a Mukhteshwar local once warned him "Beautiful, aren't they? But don't stare too long, they will make you sad".
"Even the beginning of the book takes place in the mountains of Mukhteshwar", Mukherjee points out. Wherever the setting may be, Dark Circles is always very much a tale of two brothers. Ronojoy, the central figure, and Sujoy, his younger brother are both polar opposites. Ronojoy on the surface appears to be calmer, more focused and contemplative while Sujoy is bursting with aggression and restlessness.
"Ronojoy is imploding, while Sujoy is exploding", comments Mukherjee. The novel seamlessly switches from events in the present concerning the brothers in the present, to past where it focuses on their parents, Mala and Subir. In these scenes, Ronojoy and Sujoy, children at the time are troubled onlookers. The despondency that Subir feels in the past, is echoed in the despondency that Ronojoy feels.
It is Ronojoy's actions in the present that drive the events of the book. It is also Ronojoy who struggles with the weight of certain inheritances from both his parents, perhaps more than Sujoy. "Depression, like all mental illnesses, is something even doctors and professionals don't understand fully", says Mukherjee. "There is a lot of the human mind that we do not really know about, and that we need to explore. It's a really grey area. Clinical depression, both as is the result of traumatic experiences and something that is inherited, is an important theme in the novel, so there is a lot of grey there as well, which the readers will pick up on."
He goes on to add, "The corrosive nature of regret, the ability to forgive - a loved one or even yourself, these are all also very central to the novel. The issue of moral judgement is also critical. The protagonists face great moral dilemmas in the story to which there aren't any easy answers, but equally, the reader is presented with dilemmas on where she stands with regard to the actions of key characters. Finally, there is the matter of closure which we all seek after traumatic phases in our lives but the elusive nature of this closure is another theme I have tried to grapple with in the novel."
When asked about the significance of the title, Mukherjee chooses to leave it to the reader's discretion. "The title of a book should be left to the interpretation of readers. Ideally, a reader should be able to engage with it at more than one level, as he or she wades through the book. For example, Ronojoy's chronic sleeplessness lends itself to a very obvious interpretation of the title, but the reader could equally wonder if it has to do with the recurring pattern of troubles in the lives of the brothers - the concentric circles of pain which they seem unable to extricate themselves from. But it is really not for me to say, as the book is as much the readers' as it is mine," he states enigmatically.
When asked what the message of the book was, he muses, "Complexity in human behaviour interests me as an observer. The family is the seat of an incredible amount of complexity. The strangest things happen within a family though on the surface everything may appear calm and normal. The narrative of Dark Circles may appear implausible to some readers but it is my firm belief that even stranger things have happened in the lives of real families. I wanted to engage with some of these issues through the medium of a novel. I wanted to pose some uncomfortable questions to the reader about a range of issues. Like all writers, I want the characters and events of the novel to linger with the reader long after the book is read, and can only hope that it will, at least for some. Mukherjee's goal has been accomplished as all readers will be forced to ask themselves difficult questions, and wonder of all families and relationships are what they appear to be. Dark Circles is also the nature of certain relationships, the powerlessness to deal with the aftermath of events long past, and the ties of family. Dark Circles is both intriguing and compelling, and illumininates how the ordinary can have unexpected and enormous significance. As a character in the novel reflects, "All these forks on the road to ruin. We tend to think of life-changing events as lightning strikes, but they seldom are".
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