From the back cover:
“Myung and Laleh are keepers of the whale of babel. They roam within its cosmic chambers, speak folktales of themselves, and pray to an enigmatic figure they know only as ‘Great Wisa’. To Laleh, this is everything. For Myung, it is not enough.
Fables, dreams and myths come together in this masterful work of fantasy by acclaimed author Tashan Mehta, sweeping across three landscapes, and featuring a museum of collective memory and a festival of madness. At its core, it asks: In the devastating chaos of this world, where all is in flux and the truth ever-changing, what will you choose to hold on to?”
I’m going to be honest — I was first drawn to this book for it’s absolutely gorgeous cover. The blurb by Samit Basu sealed the deal for me.
It also helped that I had read Tashan Mehta’s short story in Magical Women and enjoyed it, so I was eager to see if this book would live up to my expectations.
Spoiler alert: It did!
The story starts with Myung and Laleh, the keepers of the mysterious Whale of Babel. Scholars have speculated on what the whale is and where it comes from, but for the sisters, the whale is their reason for being and their entire world.
Until, that is, Myung decides to leave. To go out and explore the world. To find more people. Because the many rooms and mini worlds of the whale and the company of her sister are no longer enough. She longs for something more.
“So she had left. It broke her, but she had to. Staying with Laleh was like staring at a glass of water when you are parched, but you are unable to pick it up and drink because your sister wants to keep holding your hands.”
During her travels across the islands black sea, Myung arrives in Ojda, the mad island where the Kilta family lives. The island where Mad Magali has trapped her family, as she waits for her lost sister, Wisa.
No one is allowed to visit Odja, and the Kiltas can never leave the island. Not even after death — their ghosts remain, though they’ve forgotten why they are there and what, or whom, Mad Magali is looking for. All that they remember is that no one is allowed to visit Odja.
“Have you ever been lonely and not realized it until your loneliness was sated? Do you remember seeing your reflection for the first time and the uncanny feeling that accompanied it—of standing both outside yourself and inside?”
But Blajine is the only living Kilta on the island. And she is lonely. As she is pulled between the desire for company and the edicts by which the Kiltas have lived for centuries, Myung slowly befriends the island.
And finally, we learn the story of Mad Magali and Wisa. About the island of Esi and the festival of madness, which takes place once every hundred years, shrouded in secrecy, so no one knows what really happens during the nine days that the festival lasts. And we learn, finally, about the Whale of Babel and the secrets that lie at its heart.
“This is a girl of contradictions; she is uninterested in coherence. She is smiling as she talks, and although this is still a silent picture, we realise she has done this before. Talking to trees is an everyday activity for Wisa. The trees talk back.”
Told in multiple POVs, going back and forth in time, with excerpts from Myung’s diaries and extracts from scholarly papers, Mehta creates a fantastical world that, without being in any way overt or implicit, harks to the social dynamics currently prevalent in India, perhaps even the world. Or maybe I read too much into some scenes and worlds.
I also loved how Mehta subverted what it means to be mad. Rather than losing touch with reality, the mad ones are the world builders, the alchemists, the magic makers.
It reminds me of a quote by Akira Kurusowa, “In a mad world, only the mad are sane”, or in Mehta’s world, it’s the mad ones who are magical, who can create something fantastical.
“In our third chamber, a new word appeared to me. SISTER, two syllables. Meaning to belong to and love forever.”
And at the beating heart of the story are the mad sisters, separated by time and space, Magali and Wisa; and Myung and Laleh, the keepers of the Whale of Babel. And an exploration of sisterhood, love, secrecy, and the things you hold close when everything around you seems to be in flux.
“We never truly leave the ones we love.”
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Title & author: Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Number of pages: 424