My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had heard rave reviews about the book for a whole year before I picked it up. I read the English translation of this Kannada novel by Shrinath Perur, and while I concede that a little something is always lost in translation, Perur has done a wonderful job of it, not merely giving the literal translation of the text but rather, of making sure that as much essence of it is retained as possible.
The book opens with a young man sitting in the Coffee House. He is here in the morning and in the evening, and has been a refuge to him in all circumstances from meeting his then lover and now an ex-flame once to now being just a place that he visits to escape everything else in his life. His conversation with Vincent, a server at the Coffee House, make some of the most interesting bits of the book. I will come back to Vincent a little later because I want to do him justice. Saved from the verge of near destitution by his uncle’s successful spice business, the narrator and his family witness a tremendous change of in their financial fortunes. As he reminisces about the good old days, with the family living off modest means and living in a small house, the reader cannot help but dig into our own stash of memories from his or her own childhood, more so if you grew up in the 90s or earlier. That chapter is by far my favourite portion of the book. At one point, the narrator says,
“When you have no choice, you have no discontent either.”
Because isn’t that precisely how we remember our childhood felt like? Simple, uncomplicated and carefree!
Now this entry into the world of nouveau riche did not come without its own set of challenges. What surprises me the most is the fact that the family is more or less still cohesive, probably not as interdependent on each other as when they lived modestly may be, but still the ties of blood are more or less the same as before. They are unsympathetic or even insensitive to the society outside the walls of their home, but within it, they are as together as before. A marriage is solemnised in the family and another is dissolved, and it is these occasions and relations that give the reader an insight into the crumbling foundations of the family’s peace. It is not a long read so any attempts I make to describe the events in the book will take away the joy from the reader. The family’s spiral into chaos and pathos is a relatively gradual curve. The book is properly paced, never so fast that the reader cannot take in the subtleties and never so slow that you might call it dull. It doesn’t aim to enlighten the reader or nor engage him/her in an erudite conversation. The reader derives most of the takeaway as observation or inference, for a lot is left unwritten, but not unsaid.
Coming back to Vincent, that is perhaps my only dissatisfaction with the book. Vincent and his pithy replies win my heart. I yearn to read more about him, find myself wondering from time to time about what would Vincent regarding a development in the family. Vincent’s character, in my humble opinion, has tremendous potential. At times, Vincent and his cryptic yet smart replies reflect the situation in the book more aptly than any number of words could! Vincent’s mental austerity bring the narrator’s ( the son of the family ) superficiality, or to be more correct – the superficiality of his obsessive reflection of his familial situation – to the forefront. At times, it appears that he might be the doing some serious introspection, but it doesn’t help much. At least, it didn’t evoke much sympathy for the character in my mind. His thoughts sound flimsy and definitely reflect the complacency and lack of maturity this sudden wealth has brought into his thought process. I expected Vincent to emerge as the voice of reason in this madness as the book progresses. But that didn’t happen. At the same time, it would be extremely unfair to call this a flaw in the book because the author makes no such promises in the book to lead the reader on. I am therefore more than okay to set aside my disappointment with the book.
Summarising this review, I would say that the book weaves a wonderful web of unease and confusion throughout the book that hooks the reader into the story. The language is uncomplicated yet effective, it brought up some extremely evocative memories for me from my childhood. It is essentially Indian in terms of references and plot set up, so that earned it another thumbs up from me. And yet it is not pedantic or philosophical – no hysterical drama that comes across as a sham straight up – because I have observed that in stories about familial ties and complexities, the less is always more. Recommended!