Valmiki's Daughter - Shani Mootoo
Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo
When I saw an early press release for Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo, I learned that the author was now living in Toronto after many years in Western Canada. I immediately contacted her publisher and arranged for Shani Mootoo to do a reading in Parry Sound. She will be at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Wednesday 13 May at 7:30 pm.
Shani Mootoo’s first novel Cereus Blooms at Night is among my favourite books. If I discover someone who has not read it, I am happy to be the one to introduce readers to this author. Shani Mootoo is a good writer – very, very good.
Her most recent novel Valmiki’s Daughter is the work of a more mature writer. A very visual writer; Shani Mootoo brings memory alive, as she walks us through the busy streets of San Fernando, Trinidad. She looks beneath the surface, into the cracks of people’s lives. There are the people we place on a pedestal – the people she exposes as not so perfect – and she shares her compassion for them with the reader.
Valmiki Krishnu is a Trinidadian Medical Doctor with a busy practice, a home above the slums, in the prosperous suburb of Luminada Heights. He lives here with his wife, Devika, and two daughters, Viveka, the elder, and Vashti, the younger. Dr. Krishnu, however much a family man he may seem, is in reality a man denying his true sexuality. Valmiki is homosexual, but after a personally satisfying sexual relationship with another man while away from Trinidad at University in Scotland, he returned home, married a suitable wife and had a family. Valmiki did not have the courage or determination to do otherwise. He, also, did not want to hurt his parents, lose all of his family ties and never be able to live in his homeland again - a country where race and religion and social status were so very important.
In some ways Valmiki and Devika have a good marriage. They care about each other, they love their home, they take pride in their place in society, they enjoy hosting lavish parties. Valmiki has continued to have liaisons with other men – and more publically with other women as an effective smoke screen. Devika knows of these infidelities but they are not spoken about between husband and wife, “Theirs was a house of secrets.” There is hurt and anguish for both, but they have lived this way for many years, they have survived, together, the death of a young son, the “death that changed things between us all”, and both cherish their daughters.
We meet the family when Viveka is in University and Vashti in secondary school. We realize that Viveka is homosexual at the same time that her parents do. They are both concerned – to say the least - about how this will affect her future. Valmiki does not want his daughter to have to live her life as he has, denying an important part of who he is – he wants her to be able to live fully and completely, and openly, as the woman she is. Devika just wants her daughters to be normal – she does not want to have anymore of this in her life.
Viveka meanwhile has a sort of boyfriend who is encouraging her to have sex with him. She is confused by her lack of desire – until she meets Anick. Anick is a young French woman and new wife of the son of family friends, and it is Anick who awakens Viveka’s sexuality. It is now Viveka who realizes how much she will lose, whether she denies her sexuality, and is open about it. She contemplates the consequences, knowing she cannot make either choice.
There is the opportunity for Viveka and her father to talk openly, and there is almost an opportunity for Valmiki and Devika to talk honestly to each other. I so wish they could have. I am not going to give away the end of this novel – it took me by surprise.
Shani Mootoo has come a long way, as a lesbian, to be able to write so openly now about sexuality. Perhaps it feels less risky now than when Cereus Blooms at Night was published thirteen years ago. When I think about the options that Viveka, at the age of 20, does and does not have – I realize that her father is only 39 years old. Does he now have options that he did not have 20 years earlier? Would Devika, in fact, be happier if her marriage ended, would she find a man who could give her more than Valmiki was capable of? I want to know what happens to these people after this novel ends. I am very glad that I will have the opportunity to ask Shani Mootoo in person next week.