Sunday, July 5, 2009

Not So Striking

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

THE STRIKE Anand Mahadevan

Ah, the joys of coming of age in an Indian city in the Eighties. It was a time before easy Internet access, before malls and multiplexes, before the democratisation of airline travel and before the opening up of the economy. Instead, one developed a taste for kitsch at decaying single-screen theatres, implored relatives visiting from overseas to bring back the latest releases, discussed procreation in hushed tones, and prepared for long-distance train travel at the start of every summer holiday. It is with these ingredients that Anand Mahadevan fashions his winsome but structurally odd debut novel, The Strike.

In brisk, efficient prose, Mahadevan takes us into the world and extended family of Hari, a Nagpur-based pre-teen whose family is from south India. Through a series of vignettes, we learn of his experiments with eating fried fish at a neighbour’s house – something his devoutly vegetarian family would shudder at – his interactions with the same neighbour’s daughter as well as a classmate, a family journey to Benares with his grandmother’s ashes, his antics during Holi and his nascent erotic stirrings while at the movies, among other activities.

About halfway through, the novel moves away from this episodic pattern and segues into an account of another train journey that Hari and his mother undertake, this time to Chennai. This is the heart of the book and Mahadevan is at his most evocative here, touching upon aspects familiar to anyone who’s undertaken a similar trip: the food, the porters, a variety of chatty, inquisitive co-passengers, the stench of the toilets, the passing scenery and the hubbub of stations on the way. Hari’s fascination with two others on the train, a eunuch and an aspiring film star, leads to a private sexual awakening -- and later, to a series of mishaps when the train is halted near Ennore by protestors calling for a strike because of the death of their beloved hero MGR. It’s as though the piece of fish that Hari earlier consumed with so much gusto continues to blight his life with negative karmic ramifications.

At this point, Mahadevan again switches register; the novel moves away from a recounting of Hari’s actions and impressions, to dwell on those dealing with the fallout of the train mishap, among them his grandparents, railway officials , disgruntled factory workers and none other than Jayalalitha, in a cameo appearance. Though a chastened Hari does re-enter the scene later, the novel’s interrupted emotional momentum never gets back on track.

Mahadevan takes care to weave in markers of the era – the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the vagaries of south Indian politics, for example – but since the book was first published in Canada a few years ago, he also takes pains to explain their meaning and significance to readers of that country, either though dialogue or narrative exposition. This, combined with structural inconsistencies, makes The Strike engaging but not very striking.

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