Book Review: Sakina’s Kiss by Vivek Shanbhag is a Masterful Portrayal of the Middle-Class Family

Vivek Shanbhag’s “Sakina’s Kiss,” masterfully translated by Srinath Perur, is a multi-layered narrative that brilliantly blends elements of suspense, human relationships, and cultural dynamics with the context of a middle-class Indian family. 

At the core of the novel is Venkatraman, a man with a modest yet patriarchal background, a love for self-help books, and a maze of haunting insecurities. He is accompanied by Viji, his rational and empathetic wife, and Rekha, their rebellious and free-spirited daughter who aspires to become a journalist, opposing Venkatraman’s desire for her to pursue a science degree.

The story is told through a carefully constructed narrative that shifts between Venkat’s current life and his lived history. Giving us a deeper understanding of how Venkat’s marriage has evolved, Rekha’s growing rebelliousness, and the mysterious history of his politically active uncle, Ramana, Shanbhag’s retrospective narratorial approach offers richness to the plot and its characters.

Venkatraman’s character reflects the challenges of adapting to changing social norms and the loss of his once-secure position of authority. As the traditional values and beliefs that shaped his identity start to fade, he finds himself in a state of confusion. The novel vividly portrays his struggle to come to terms with a world where his previous dominance in the family is no longer assured. 

Shanbhag’s storytelling is straightforward and yet deeply moving. He adeptly depicts everyday men grappling with societal changes, highlighting the enduring prejudices and the vulnerabilities intrinsic to masculinity in India’s dynamic social landscape.

Spanning nine chapters, the narrative skilfully weaves between past and present, creating a sense of intrigue that keeps you engaged. The title, “Sakina’s Kiss,” remains enigmatic until the sixth chapter, adding to the novel’s mysterious allure.

The narrative poses tantalizing questions: Where has Rekha vanished to? Who are the menacing political goons searching for her? What secrets does Venkat’s elusive uncle Ramana harbour? And why was Venkat’s seemingly inconsequential apartment targeted by burglars? While the novel refrains from offering definitive answers, it encourages you to reflect on these mysteries, leaving them with an open-ended climax that lingers hauntingly.

The most jarring moment in Venkat’s life comes when Rekha disappears without a trace, embroiled in a supposedly noble quest to right a wrong, inadvertently attracting the attention of a menacing gang that torments Venkat.

“Sakina’s Kiss” is a captivating exploration of family dynamics, societal change, and the intricate nuances of human relationships. Through Venkatraman’s poignant journey, Shanbhag adeptly navigates the delicate balance between truth and perception. The novel not only challenges you to confront your biases and assumptions but also resonates with the opening quote by the twelfth-century mystic poet, Allama Prabhu: “Things should not be understood in the here and now.”

About the Reviewer:

Richa Shah spent a decade in the fast-paced world of advertising before deciding to take a leap into the slow, yet enthralling, and ever-growing realm of home brewing Specialty Coffee, all while exploring new and catching up on some unread books. Amidst the pages of books and sips of coffee, Richa has found joy in this new chapter of her journey.
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