14 November 2010

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

Daily life with gentle style but no dramatics
This book is set in a Bombay I remember with fondness and nostalgia. Anjali writes about places that I left behind nearly twenty years ago but will always have a place in my heart – and she describes them with a skill that I enjoyed very much. I could quite well identify with Mohan, the middle-aged hero, a reflective person with a deep commitment to his family but equally the capacity to view them objectively.

I read this book a few months ago and I think I enjoyed it particularly because I read it aloud to my friend Gladys who knew Anjali Joseph as a child. We both admired the literary talent it represents, and didn’t feel the need for more action than it has. I mention this because I read a number of critical reviews at the time which complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. And I thought to myself – I wonder what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype.

But I was also reminded of Mohsin Hamid and his sparse, laidback style which uses few well-chosen words to bring a whole region and culture alive. It struck me that one of the central characters of Sarawati Park could even, in all facetiousness, be described as The Reluctant Homosexual. I will also say that I wouldn’t like to call this “a coming of age novel” even though it does focus on a brief period in this young man’s life when he suffers, as young people do, while struggling to find themselves.

Finally, as Gladys pointed out, this is one of those rare books about an India which is not dramatically dirty and corrupt, desperately poor and wretched, or exotic, or disgusting in other ways and therefore may not be of great interest to gaping audiences in other countries and perhaps will not win the acclaim of The White Tiger or God of Small Things (though perhaps it should). It’s just about normal, decent, reasonably comfortable people like you and me; and that is why she, for one, liked it a lot and would recommend it to everyone she can who doesn’t know India, as representative of the life many of us are familiar with.

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