The year is 1986. The story is set in Kalimpong, a small Indian town of the northeastern Himalayas. Sai and her tutor Gyan, the judge and his dog Mutt, the cook and his expatriate son Biju, Uncle Potty and his friend Father Booty, the sisters Lola and Noni- are some of the major and minor characters in the complex sociology of this small town.
The plot is set against the politically tense environment of the Gurkha Separatist movement. The characters reveal their predominant ambitions, passions and life choices to the reader who gets one snippet into their interlinked lives at a time. Post colonial hangover emerges as a major theme in the novel- each character suffers some sense of loss due to it. The elite and the educated suffer a sense of decadence in their present conditions and look up to the bygone colonial past as a thing of glory whose remnants need to be preserved. The developed West becomes an idyllic locale which needs to be achieved and inhabited by both the rich and the poor.
Desai effectively captures Indian societal ambitions of the later 1900s- the educated and the uneducated alike aspire to migrate to the developed West in the hope of gleaning some personal financial gain in its allegorical gold rush. Each individual attempts to escape the economic and political rot of their existent societies in the hope of gaining an idealized prosperity from the West. The rich poor divide in Indian towns is realistically portrayed with a very humane eye. We witness the scramble to loot the haves by the have-nots in the absence of a law enforcement body and basic civil amenities. The haves are shown to live a shadow existence in the absence of a glorious or pride-worthy present.
Desai employs the third person omniscient voice to deliver each character’s story to us. Her tone is mildly humorous and her method is meticulous. Desai paints effective word pictures without going into elaborate descriptions. The book is comfortably paced much like life itself in the small town of Kalimpong. I could finish the book in a couple of sittings.
Minus the lawlessness, I found a lot of similarity between the elite in Desai’s Kalimpong and today’s urban Indian educated society. Desai gives equal importance to the characters of the judge, Sai, Gyan and Biju in order to effectively elaborate on her theme. I liked the book mainly because I could identify with the book’s major theme and because I loved her benevolent satire of this strange dichotomy. But other than this there is not much I can carry back with me from this experience. Overall I liked the book because of its comfortable smell of familiarity.
Book Reviewed by Ashmita Saha
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