Monday, September 13, 2010

Love And Longing In Mumbai

This appeared in yesterday's edition of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian.


A letter-writer in his fifties rekindles his desire to write short stories. His wife leaves him to stay with her relatives and then is reconciled to his ways. And their nephew, studying in the last year of college, gains a measure of self-confidence after two gay relationships. That, more or less, is what happens in Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park.

Not the stuff of stirring drama then; yet the novel is, in its own way, a moving and finely-observed account of the lives of those who find themselves on the margins of Mumbai. Joseph’s eye for the minutiae of everyday life is unerring – details are not so much observed as they are massaged. In her hands, the quotidian is a many-splendoured thing, and this is what gives the book a rare quality of intimacy.

All three characters, living together in a house in “a new colony in a part of the city they hadn't really known existed”, are defined by dissatisfaction. The first, Mohan, the letter-writer who sits outside the GPO, buys second-hand books, symbolically scribbling on their margins. In his own way, he tries to weave the events of his present and past (his father’s own fledgling writing career, the streetwalker who comes to him to draft a letter) into short works of fiction. He is a person who, like Lambert Strether, should be told to “live all you can; it’s a mistake not to”.

His wife, Lakshmi, ekes out days of quiet desperation, frustrated by her husband’s hermetic habits. She acquires a taste for regressive TV serials; visits the neighbourhood temple; and mourns her elder brother. Ashish, their nephew, staying with them for a year while he finishes college, feels incomplete without a relationship to depend upon. At first, he falls for a “rich, thoughtless, overprivileged” classmate, then for an older, more urbane professor. All three characters, by the novel’s end, will gain a degree of fulfillment brought about by increasing self-knowledge. This is, one supposes, the point of naming their colony after the goddess of learning.

There is much in Joseph’s prose that is reminiscent of the work of Amit Chaudhuri. Yet, it is through employing a wry outsider’s gaze that she creates a style of her own. One of the pleasures of such defamiliarisation is that it shows us the things we take for granted in a new light. A long-distance bus is “an air-conditioned Hindi-film-music-playing torture chamber”; the Gateway of India is “a sort of three-dimensional gift tag…stuck on the city”; and street urchins playing football seem “to be engaged in a strange dance whose purpose was to cover every inch of the lane with the ball, which slipped between them as though attached to their feet by lengths of elastic”.

Such observations could be said to weaken the novel's fabric as they move away from the character's worlds and introduce, however unobtrusively, an author's viewpoint. Nonetheless, the dissonance between this outsider’s way of looking at things and an insider’s portrayal of objects and emotions give rise to Saraswati Park’s particular charms.

Sometimes, there is puckish, almost Narayanesque humour in the way the characters think of themselves. When Ashish’s friend reminds him of Gandhi’s saying that we have to be the change we want to see in the world, he thinks: “In that case, I’d have to be a very good-looking boy who’d sleep with anyone and make no fuss about it”.

Because of the novel’s meditative, unhurried procession of sentences, often supported by semi-colons, there are no overt highs and lows. Instead, life’s upsets, lover's quarrels, partings, and even a death are marked by a polite knocking on the doors of inwardness.

This can at times give Saraswati Park an overlong Sunday afternoon languidness. Yet, there are vivid images too, some involving pigeons and owls, others reminiscent of Imagist poetry. Gulmohar flowers, to offer one example, are “pasted like frail paper toys against the glistening wet macadam”. (Another unwitting echo of Amit Choudhuri; in The Immortals, he describes a Bandra lane filled with “precise carpets of bright red” gulmohur flowers.)

Saraswati Park, then, is a delicate and filigreed piece of work that can be read as a counter to the romanticism and grand narratives that populate so much of Indian writing in English these days.  At one point, Ashish thinks of his uncle as “…someone for whom each detail of life had its own significance, revelatory as though it had been a clue in a cosmic detective story”. That statement could well apply to the novel as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Nice review. Have seen this book fairly hyped in several newspapers and magazines. Though I’m not such a fan of literary fiction, I might just give this a try.

Unknown said...

Thanks. Ignore categories; do try reading it.