07 December 2011

The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran

Disco-dandiya, batata-wada-burger
I somehow found myself with two copies of this book and realised that here was a Sign that I must read it (despite all my wannabe aspirations) even though it was more than five years old.
I found the cover attractive and a good representation of ‘modern’ India though the text on the back was clichéd and a bit blah. But the first story charmed me and I couldn’t stop till I’d read right through. In fact, by the time I finished the book, the first story turned out to be the one I liked least.
Lavanya Sankaran writes well, develops her characters beautifully, and I found myself engaged with her relevant detail and smart turns of phrase. And, though the stories are separate from each other, characters sometimes randomly reappear. I liked the feeling of meeting familiar people in new situations.
These stories are based in Bangalore and expose the ironies of clashing cultures.

Four friends work in the city, with lifestyles inspired by separate streams: modern and western versus traditional values of family and upbringing. There are solutions, and there are traps. When Ramu, an ‘unmonk’, captive of his desires, finally decides that it's time for him to marry, his mother’s “lifetime membership to that hidden, systemic device, specially designed for men in his position: the matrimonial industry, a sinister social syndicate redolent with its own brokers and goons and gossip” comes in handy.
Several stories later, Ramu shows up again in a cameo – yes, he is a ruthless bastard, this we already knew; his lonely fate is well deserved. The Sita may be meek and traumatised – but she is brilliant too.
The new department stores in their city market western lifestyles to Indian homes that were previously starved of wineglasses and Aromatherapy candles and Provencal-inspired dishes. And, for god’s sake, people can’t tell the difference between Eminem and Billy Joel! (Well, you know those Americans, Sita tells her American client. They all sound alike.)

My favourite incongruity is the one in which Sita sits in an American coffee joint watching a warring couple scream loud obscenities at each other. When the woman leaves for a bit to go to the loo, the man spits angrily into her coffee cup. And Sita’s client, her friend, leans forward and tells her softly, I hope you don’t mind saying this but in America it’s considered rude to stare.
In another story we get to know the privileged child growing up with staunch Enid Blyton values, a self-absorbed, neglectful mother, and horrifying traumas of her own. Attending a ‘convent’ school has its own subtle quirks:
Be proud of your country, they said. Democratic. Republic. Independent. And be proud of the English traditions of your school. Remember the greatness of Indians dead, they said: Mahatma Gandhi, Akbar-Ashoka-Chandragupta, and use your fork, not your fingers. No, my girl, we don’t call it the Sepoy Mutiny; for us, it was the First War of Independence, and if the Queen of England were to see you slouching like that, would she be pleased?
(When the Queen of England finally recognized her efforts on behalf of English Culture and invited her to tea, Mrs Rafter would have nothing to be ashamed of)
The New India is well represented by a ‘May-dum’ who, to the surprise of her driver, cares for his welfare and treats him like a human being, and, most astonishing of all, expects him to scrupulously follow traffic rules. And yet, grounded in traditional roles for women, he is confused by and disapproving of her revealing clothes, smoking habit, and the occasions on which she goes out with women friends and comes home swaying and clearly inebriated.

Priya, daughter of Indian immigrants to the US is a stereotypical brat. Her parents are patient and supportive, hiding their concern as she freely makes efforts to find herself using methods that range from sexual experimentation to a trip to India – though her mother’s reluctance to embrace a higher quality of life means she resists Priya’s attempts to convert her from a vegetarian to veganism; she will not run with wolves, free her inner child, live in integrity with her spirit, or even indulge in some straightforward vaginal mirror-gazing, meeting all such requests with a simple, “What nonsense!”

While all the stories rang strong notes of the familiar, these parents in particular put me in mind of my own long suffering silence in the face of know-it-all children who have lived a sheltered life of privilege. (Ours was a harsher reality.)
I also enjoyed Lavanya Sankaran’s lavish and elaborately festooned descriptions.
The room became warmer, with the blazing sacred fire and the collective heat of all the people crowded into that shrinking room. Women developed heat-delineated arcs under their armpits; wisps of hair escaped the fastening of braids and topknots, flowers and oil, to curl and frizz around their faces. The chanting seemed to get louder as the air thickened about Priya. The heat slipped under her skin: she felt the warmth rushing to her head, and descending down her brow to rest on the bridge of her nose in drops of water, thick and heavy. The cumbersome silk sari embraced her body like clingwrap.
And, in another place:
See the software lads morphy their inner walter mitty into alfred doolittle (I swear, da, it was just a little bit of blooming luck.
How old would someone be who knew Walter Mitty so intimately, a character I had encountered at age 11 in my grandfather’s Thurber collection? (Wiki tells me that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was written in 1939 by James Thurber).
Someone who could look into the secret souls of a 51-year-old mother who longs to share a close relationship with a darling daughter whose education and career has turned her into a stranger?
Someone who knew that darling daughter too, inside out, searingly aware of how she juggles her aspirations and her frustrations with her inescapable dutiful-daughter DNA?

Someone who understood how precious knowledge of the Gayatri Mantra was once to a woman?

I looked online for Lavanya Sankaran and found a number of flattering reviews of this book (all kindly telling me that I was more than five years too late) but no website. Surely a star like her should have her own website – so many lesser writers do! I finally found her on facebook, and my first thought was that she looked too young to know all this. And I messaged her with a few questions but haven’t had a response yet.

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