Why isn’t this a major motion-picture yet, with Ilayaraja/Rehman soundtrack and Surya in a double role?
This book made quite a few waves when it first came out. It was supposed to be a really brilliant book, nicely written etc etc, and Mr. Davidar was the other reason for the hype. The man who brought Penguin India from being a publisher of a handful of books every year to one of the largest publishing houses in English in India had written a novel. It seemed quite full of Raj reminisces, caste violence, and all that staple Indian English fare. There were murmurs that it was semi-autobiographical.
Me, I was in no mood to read another The God of Small Things. The reviews were goddamn all over the place. All the more easier to gloss them over. [Aside: I read on a blog somewhere about how online advertising co.s like Google should penalize bad ads, because they make users more resistant to ads, making the jobs of even the good ads more difficult]. Just like it had been for Arundati Roy’s magnum opus. And the plot seemed to be set in Kerala. God, just some smartass publisher who hoped to capitalize on the success of The God….
So I don’t know what I was thinking when I picked it off the rack at Blossoms a couple of weeks back.
But I’m glad I did.
(It later turned out to be set in Tamil Nadu, in some places bordering Kerala, but it’s not about a bunch of Malayalees who have descendants who come up with those irritating Mallu jokes. But the reason I’m glad for it being set in Tamil Nadu, I will come to very soon. Oh, and those of you wondering how to pronounce Davidar, after reading the book, I guess it doesn’t have an outlandish pronunciation, but probably something like David-err… just like Kalaign-err, Chozhiy-err, etc.).
The plot line is quite simple… tracing the travails of three generations of the Dorai family, who find true happiness and purpose only at their ancestral Neelam Illam, the titular House of Blue Mangoes.
The story starts in 1899, the first generation of Dorais we are introduced to are lords of a village… Solomon Dorai is the village headman, a just, kind and stable one. Caste violence tears the family asunder, taking with it Solomon and his cousin, and separating his wife and older son from the younger son.
The next generation consists of his sons – the studious Daniel, and the volatile Aaron. Aaron is lost in the freedom movement, while Daniel becomes a successful doctor, combining the best of traditional and Western systems of medicine, going on to become very wealthy after coming up with a skin-lightening formula.
The story follows Daniel’s son Kannan in its last third. It is now close to independence and WWII, and Kannan finds himself a brown man in a white man’s world. This part of the book deals exceedingly with his identity crises, and his journey of self-discovery.
Themes of family togetherness, father-son conflicts, and stubborn pursuits of idea run throughout the story.
While the book deals mainly with the men of the Dorai family, Mr. Davidar does do the women justice. Be it the strong Charity, or the Anglo-Indian Helen, or even the calm Lily, they have a depth of character, elaborate character sketches, strong likes and dislikes – enough to feel very real. Though they are mainly relegated to the background in their lives, their importance to the plot is not undermined by Mr. Davidar, who goes on to give them engaging, powerful and empathy-evoking personalities.
Mr. Davidar does the same for even the minor characters. Be it the sneaky Vakeel Perumal or the sturdy Joshua, or Cooke, the good Brit, or Hall, the Brit with his own axe to grind, Mr. Davidar does enough to ensure they aren’t stereotypes who exist to perform fixed roles in the story, but characters good enough to have their own birth certificates and passports.
I was glad this novel was set in TN and not Kerala, not because of any innate hatred towards the redflag-toting football-loving neighbors to our south, but because I’ve been so long cut off from Tamil literature, I know very little of the place beyond what I see in movies… which I don’t watch much on a regular basis. I cannot read my aunt’s columns and short stories in various magazines, because I can’t read Tamil. The cap on all this came last month, when I was visiting an uncle of mine. For half an hour or more, he kept slipping in references to various Tamil authors, what they said, and all that, none of which I could comprehend. And after forty-five minutes, he finally understood that I can’t read/write Tamil, and with a flourish, brought out a book of children’s stories by Sujatha. I hadn’t finished reading even one line, when he’d interrupt me with some other quote by some 16th Century saint, to ask about Lennon’s lovelife, trying to get me to spar with him on a K’taka-vs-TN argument which would put Ka.Ra.Ve and the cable operators of Bangalore to shame… I haven’t read even a single story in Tamil yet.
But anyway, any Tamil writer on the same topic wouldn’t be as passive as Mr. Davidar, but take on a more activist role. Most Tamil writers who would generally deal with caste violence in their books would take a stand, mostly on the side of the lower castes, and yell Death to Brahmins, mostly in verse, obtuse verse a noob like me wouldn’t be able to understand.
And that’s where Mr. Davidar’s brilliance lies. He doesn’t preach, or take sides. He presents the caste wars as just another agent of change, nothing more, nothing less. He doesn’t decry the Englishman’s apathy towards the native… it’s left to the audience to do so. There is absolutely no overstatement, no underestimation of the reader’s intelligence.
What makes the book all the more refreshing is that Mr. Davidar doesn’t write from the point of view of the urban Indian or an NRI rediscovering his roots, but as someone writing about something close to his heart. There aren’t outlandish references, or an overuse of vernacular words [though one minor irritant is his spelling Avvaiyyaar as Auvaiyar.. but that's towards the end of the book, by when Mr. Davidar has established his credentials as a non-pseud-Indian]. There isn’t any of the mandatory description of traditional rites and rituals from an outsider’s perspective. That makes you feel one with the characters, not like some fly on the wall. You care about the characters. You worry when Charity Dorai begins to lose her mind. You rejoice when Rachel’s wedding with Ramadoss comes off successfully. You feel the desperation when Kannan sets off to bag the tiger. You feel the same sense of homecoming when Kannan comes back to The House of Blue Mangoes in the end. You don’t turn the pages of this book and keep at it for four-five hours because there are strange twists and turns in the plot, but because you care about the characters.
What, for me, added a touch of honesty to the whole thing is the Author’s Note near the end, where he announces that the story is fiction, and the castes mentioned in it are, too, and it shouldn’t be construed as autobiographical, or as family history masquerading as fiction, though inspiration for bits of the story came from places he lived in during his childhood, and a grandfather who had a family settlement. That bit makes me like the book a lot more, as that makes it less like other works of Indian fiction, more notably The God Of Small Things which everyone thought was Ms. Roy’s autobiography with fiction thrown in here and there. It’s also great to come across a plot which has been conjured from thin air, with only the implementation details inspired from real life.
And you’d even know which bits are from where… the Acknowledgments page is more than just a boring collection of sources… Mr. Davidar acknowledges in detail seemingly everyone who had to do with the book, including “Vivek Menon who pointed out that ‘nightjars drift and do not whir’”.
All in all, a nice, well-written book with characters you can sympathize, if not empathize with. A good read.
It surprises me that no one has yet made a movie out of this plot. The narrative has been so gripping, I can see prospective trailers in front of my eyes… a collection of clips where the village gathered on the beach for Chitra-Pournami, Aaron jumping the well, Rachel blushing when she first meets Ramadoss, Solomon jumping into a well and playing with the local boys, Aaron and the Andavars practising silambattam under the guidance of Joshua, Kannan bagging the tiger, Solomon and Muthu Vedhar locked in a fight, Aaron assassinating a police officer, and a flash of an Indian flag, Daniel’s visions of his mother after she dies, Aaron calling Daniel anna before dying, Kannan getting ragged at the Madras Christian College, Kannan and Helen having long walks around the tea estate, Charity, Daniel, Rachel and Miriam on the way to Nagercoil, with wistful music in the background and visuals of evergreen forests… and finally members from different branches of the family coming together to celebrate Christmas together, and graphics of a house and a mango tree, and the title “Neelam Illam” falling into place next to it.