The Enemy Within

The Enemy Within

By Andrea Belcham

A review of The Enemy Within by Nalini Warriar

Published on May 1, 2006

The Enemy Within
Nalini Warriar

Tsar Publications
$18.95
paper
224pp
1-894770-24-2

Nalini Warriar has already received praise as a promising emerging writer with a 2002 QWF Award for her story collection Blues From the Malabar Coast. With The Enemy Within, her first novel, Warriar proves herself worthy of further acclaim – even as she tells the story of a woman whose lack of recognition has tragic consequences.

The book tracks the adult life of South Indian-born Sita, whose plans to pursue a medical degree are cut short when her parents arrange for her to marry an Indian engineer living in Canada. Their criteria for judging the groom’s acceptability are both farcical and saddening, especially in light of the troubles to follow: “Her father had looked into Anup’s family background. He’d made certain there was no history of madness in the family. All agreed that it was a good match.” Young Sita is brought by her imposing husband to Quebec, where she soon learns that her role is to be that of token wife and housekeeper – not, as she had hoped, that of beloved companion. The shock of Anup’s near-total avoidance of her is compounded by the strangeness of Quebec’s people and landscape: gone are India’s tropical climate and crowded, dirty streets, replaced by a cold, sanitized city of citizens whose manners toward her, as a “noire,” are equally chilly.

Sita’s submissiveness dissipates with the birth of their first child, and the transfer of her attention from her husband to her son aggravates Anup’s emotional abuse. But Sita’s new resolve surprises her as much as it does her domineering spouse. Now his “silent treatments” mean little to her, and she is able to look beyond the walls of her house for other sources of contentment – to university and the furthering of her education, to long evening walks through the avenues of the Old Town, and to the ever-changing world of nature. After 20 years of marriage, during which time she has built a successful career and raised two children virtually alone, Sita still hesitates to make that final gesture of formally severing her ties with Anup. It is only after he resorts to physically punishing her that she musters the courage to forget shame and divorce him. The announcement of her intent is delivered to Anup as a literal platter of revenge:

In the pasta, she put aphids. They looked like basil.
In the apple pie, maggots. They blended well with the crumble topping.
In the quiche, she put the gooseberry worms. They looked like dill…
He was not going to get away with what he’d done to her.

 

One might expect that with this liberation, Sita will be able to achieve true happiness, and indeed Warriar leads us to believe in the possibility. Sita makes a comfortable home for herself on the shores of a lake, and begins a romance with the compassionate – and passionate – Kiran. Yet just as Sita lets down her defenses, Warriar causes a most gruesome tragedy to descend.

This book traces Sita’s development into an independent minded woman, but it also tells of her long love affair with the geography of Quebec. The land that gives her moonlight “pour[ing] over the pines, flowing through the trembling leaves,” however, is the same Quebec that can – and does – hurt her: with the great Ice Storm’s lashings, and also with its incidences of racial intolerance. The 1995 referendum is the backdrop to much of Warriar’s tale, and its implications are as threatening to Sita, as an ethnic minority, as is her anger-filled husband. So it is that Sita, as much as she wants it, is never allowed a real sense of belonging.

Warriar’s yarn is not without its knots, most notably her habit of inundating the reader with reminders of Sita’s beauty, and her distracting practice of occasionally moving the point of view to minor characters. Yet she has created here a life story so engrossing and touching, so rich in evocative detail, and so telling in its condemnation of Quebec’s solipsism that she again deserves our commendation. mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

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