Written in the first person, the novel is cast around the female protagonist whose life eventually slides into irrationality.
A Bangladeshi scholarship student in Japan, Nitu, at the outset, finds an entry into a world of 'enchantment' when a beguiling landscape affords her a retreat only to draw her into its mystic abyss at the end of the novel. At Excelsior, or the hostel building where on the seventh floor, the balcony of her room No 412 assumes an ominous presence. For Nitu and a few others, the balcony appears as a black hole bored into the surface of the Earth where time stands still and selves are dissolved.
White Cats leaves one wondering as to the source of nature's uncanny ability to trap Nitu and others in what can be defined as a landscape-induced obsession. The condition that emerges (call it an aesthetic overdose or eco-mania as the real cause is only but a mystery) finally leads to the protagonist's "downfall," or "liberation," depending on how one interprets the end in the context of the developing narrative.
In sum, White Cats is about a fatal attraction. It could have been a story of passion if it described a tumultuous relationship between two people. One could even call it a tragedy if that relationship spiralled out of control leading to disastrous ends, or even if it was a tale of unrequited love tracing the downfall of an obsessed lover.
No such conventional treat is on offer here. It is rather a story of a haunting, in which no ghost appears, or even sensed by its inhabitants. What haunts in this first novel of this young and established writer is the irrational relationship between a human and a place, which, in the end, leads the protagonist into what appears to be a catastrophe, be that interpreted as natural or neural.
Almost all the "sentient beings" inhabiting the space between the two covers seem half-awake, or half-asleep while the novel tries not to bask in their loneliness and alienation it apparently harnesses. It only dishes out in a near-disinterested tenor of writing the shards and shells of the existential realities Nitu's life are spun around.
The writer never attempts to describe the psychic landscape of the characters independent of the "spectacles" and "emotions" the landscape sparks. Nitu's trance-like state enters an extreme phase when she becomes inert, given to procrastination, sulking and even hallucination – the same ingredients that once made the lives of modern romantic poets opt out of life.
The novel begins underlining Nitu's romantic agony and reflecting on the estrangement she cultivates. As one reaches towards the end, one experiences how Nitu's musings mutate into visions. Stemming from the hazy hillocks afar, they steer her towards a psychedelic state and she finds herself amidst prowling white cats. They are first seen milling around in the sky like clouds and then are found everywhere. As a reader, at this point, one wakes up to the fact that the landscape itself emerges as an entity to reckon with in this novel.
However, Nitu does not become fully dysfunctional as a student, nor as a service holder afterwards. But she starts to behave almost like a junky. Her alienation can be traced back to her early life. While in Japan, "what she enjoyed most is the fact that she was far apart from her father, mother, Romel (her husband), relatives, neighbours and friends."
If the protagonist seems possessed, the author keeps her cool as she dispassionately threads the main obsession into small events, regular mishaps and fragments of anomalous reflections and visions that make up the world of Nitu and others. Thus, one can say that the novel sets an objective lens, well almost objective, on all the goings-on.
The men in the protagonist's life appear as emotionally-spiritually anaemic. Among them, Shuvo appears as a shadow of a failed love affair and Ankuj, who is the last occupant of room No 412, occasions some important Platonic moments. The latter reveal all his secrets to her despite his brooding temperament, perhaps because both were broken inside and were behaving unnaturally.
Romel, the man she was married off to before Japan and the landscape happened to her, was a self-controlled, formal type with a focus on career. His snootiness irked Nitu more than anything when she was married to him, the afterodor of which never waned.
The conjugal life she began with Romel "was all a sham," Nitu thought during her stay in Japan when communication with home collapses into a series of reluctant exchanges of text messages with her husband. Every time Romel wrote back, she felt that her "mobile phone was weighed down with his 'personality.' " Between the words, she saw his grave visage tinted with conceit. In her interpretation, her husband appears as a man who never responds to emotional endearments, let alone getting involved in family affairs.
"A Balcony has made me feel lonesome," Nitu's expository remark right at the beginning of the novel signals what awaited the reader. The balcony of her room No 412, its haunting presence she could not resist, though the spell later proves fatal. What first seems like an "axis mundi" between the real world and the world beyond, which affords her a retreat – an exit point from the mundanities of life – soon turns her into an emotional invertebrate. The locus of solace begins to feel like a trap, giving rise to a pathological aesthetic obsession.
The author lends "agency" (though it turns diabolic in the end) to only one particular landscape. One becomes sure of this as when Nitu moves to Darfur, where her job requires her to work at Internally Displaced Persons camps, she finds herself again amidst nature. But, other than describing how she savours the beauty around her, nothing in the category of uncanny happens. The ominous event of becoming addicted to a balcony overlooking a landscape only takes place at Excelsior. And Nitu returns, or feels compelled to return, to this centre of doom several times.
As for the style of writing and the logic behind the nonlinear cadence, which can be described as "fragmentary" but not "fuzzy," it seems effective in communicating the messy world all of them inhabit. Additionally, because of the aesthetical-psychical whirlpool that devours Nitu and also few others, the kind of alienation the author spins, though not fully dissociated with the causal factors, seems to push the narrative towards the absurd.
At the end of it all, it seems as if the story is an attempt to overturn the age-old subject-object dichotomy, which makes us either believe that everything is in the head or espouse the materialistic view that all things lie outside the head. Through the disavowal of the separation of the psychic world from the phenomenal world, the novel, perhaps, makes a case for an aesthetic existentialism that turns Sartre's concept of existential aesthetic on its head.
Rashida's new brew does not necessarily approve wholesale of the "autonomy" that finally imperils the human-nature bond in the novel, the author never implies that behind the aesthetic understanding of the world there lies the assumption that such act is unrelated to other phenomena, especially Nitu's state of mind. Rather her framing of the pathology, Nitu's urge to remain under the spell of nature, while she is unaware of what danger lurks beneath it all, speaks volumes for a unitary wholeness between mind, body and the phenomenal world.
The novel subjects the reader to what one may be enticed to call a post-human condition, in which everyone has lost interest in everyone else. They are either caught in the tangles of their minds, as is Ankuj, or given to an unnatural obsession the novel so meticulously brings into view.
In the absence of a significant end, or telos, the presence of which usually helps us transcend the given, Nitu and others around her, save for their parents, fall through the holes of reality. What happens on the last visit to Excelsior is really telling.
With Ankuj gone, she is denied entry to the room she once occupied and when the current incumbent files a complaint about a woman badgering her to give a chance to sit on the balcony, Nitu is asked not to go near the building by the university authority.
But, desperate as she is, Nitu defies the ban. She takes the emergency exit stairs of the building to get to the seventh floor. What happens next is the end, though described in the most laconic terms. It goes as follows: "The sky suddenly moves closer to the earth, giving it a thorough shake from one corner to another. The ten-storey building begins to collapse and sink deep into the earth. She plunges herself in."
Mustafa Zaman is an artist, curator and writer based in Dhaka.