‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’
It is rare to come across a book which cuts through the lines of caste, religion, and communism – all at once so morally strenuous yet imaginatively so supple. The story in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” unfolds the lives of people in Kerala who are the captives of social discrimination, Communism and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life.
Roy’s first novel, but unlike other first novels, the ”The God of Small Things” is an anti-Bildungsroman, for the characters never properly grown up. The author captures the ambitious medication on the fall and decline of an Indian family and makes it a part political fable, part fairy tale, part psychological drama, and it begins at its chronological end.
A masterpiece and a novel of real ambition, the book shows how small things in life can affect a person’s life. The beauty of the book lies in its way of narration – narrated brilliantly from a third person perspective. Roy invents her own language with words chosen enticingly. The book won the Booker Prize in 1997.
First published in 1988, Upamanyu Chaterjee’s “English August” is the story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town in India. Largely regarded as the ‘Indianest’ novel in English, the novel captures the zeitgeist of the 1980’s when India was emerging from economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism.
Chaterjee, a member of the Indian civil service himself, and having travelled across the lengths and breadths of the country, portrays an ‘India’ in his book rarely seen in modern Indian writing. It reveals a detailed insight into the heartland that can result only from personal experience. Graham Greene once remarked, “Without him I could never have known what is like to be Indian.”
There is something quaint about Chaterjee’s descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and the title, “English August” is filled with cultural references.
Today’s India is very different from Chaterjee’s portrayal but the book wears the crown of authencity and Agastya Sen’s (the protagonist) story is moving, entertaining and timeless. One can merit it an accolade that’s far harder to earn then authentic. It’s a classic.
Amitav Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide” takes us into this mesh of vegetation, animal life, and the ever-present river with Kanal, who has taken leave from a translating job in New Delhi. He meets Piya, an expatriate Indian scientist from the US who believes there is an unusual species of dolphin in the murky waters of the Sundarbans.
In this novel, Ghosh weaves a compelling story by holding a narrative in perfect suspension between the worlds of language and silence. “The Hungry Tide” is like a Conradian expedition and an ideological collision between western assumptions and Indian reality. The pattern of the novel can occasionally seem erratic, but vigilance is rewarded.
The characters are finely drawn and Ghosh’s innate ability to evoke strange places remains undiminished in this novel too. It reads as a metaphor for the lost ideals that each character in the novel reaches out for but never accomplishes.
The book is much more than a 400-page river trip in search of an obscure marine mammal – it is a search for India’s modern identity.