Saraswati Park: An Intimate Portrait

My enjoyment of novels set in India has continued with Saraswati Park,  the debut novel by Anjali Joseph.

Set in Bombay it features  Mohan who in an age of electronic communication, sits under a tree near the post office and writes letters for the illiterate. His children have left home, his marriage to Lakshmi has become dull, and he seeks respite in collecting books and dreaming of a day when he can write his own book based on the stories that come to him in his sleep. He derives small pleasure by visiting the street vendors who sell 2nd hand books at Fountain area and ccollecting 2nd hand books (especially those with wide margins so he can make notes). It’s a habit which irritates his wife.

But she too is a collector, covering the surface of their kitchen table with bottles and jars of food.  Her outlet from the endless round of domestic chores lies in the TV soap operas she increasingly fills her day watching. In a telling moment about the narrow circle of her life she reflects that

…her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct than any other interaction”.

Into the humdrum lives of this couple, comes their 19 year old nephew Ashish. He’s a young man adrift in the world, unable to focus on his final year studies in literature, who allows himself to be seduced by a more wealthy student. But as quickly as that relationship starts, Ashish finds himself abruptly rejected and subjected to the sniggers of other students. He similarly sleep walks into his next relationship, this time with the more experienced, world wise professor who is meant to be tutoring him for the upcoming exams.

Ashish is the catalyst for the narrative development. He is the instigator of Mohan’s first efforts to become a writer and the outlet for his aunt’s affection and it’s his presence that sustains Mohan through the troubled months when he fears Lakshmi has left him.

Saraswati Park is an endearing portrait of these three very ordinary people; intimate and at times wry in its observations as they discover  themselves and learn what matters most to them.

But there is a fourth – equally important – character in this novel: the city of Bombay itself.  Vibrant, chaotic, full of sound and movement and yet capable of delivering moments of unexpected tranquility. It’s the product of Anjali Joseph’s personal knowledge of the city – born in Bombay her years of study at Cambridge and then East Anglia have given her the  ability of objective distancing.

A deserved winner of the Betty Trask Award, Joseph is tipped by many critics to be an author to watch in the future.

Well worth reading.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 19, 2012, in Betty Trask Award, India and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Salman Rushdie counts as an Indian author too, doesn’t he? I think I will grow to completely love his books when I’ve read a few more… I have Mistry’s A Fine Balance waiting on my shelf. I also think John Irving did a good job with his A Son of the Circus. This one sounds really good too. There’s something about books by Indian writers or even just taking place in India that gives them a certain life and color that’s just so vibrant.

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    • I think I have to work my way up to Rushdie but yes he would be classed as an Indian author. Any one of his books in particular you would recommend? I have the Mistry book also…..just bought it.

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  2. At the moment I am halfway trhough Rohinton Mistry’s first novel, ‘Such a Long Journey’ having just finished Paul Scott’s ‘Staying On’ and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s ‘Heat and Dust’ for our forthcoming Summer School on Indian Literature. This is a novel that had completely passed me by but from what you’ve said about it I’m sure it’s one I should be adding to our reading list. One of the things I love most about Mistry’s work (and I do think he is the greatest of the Indian authors) is the way in which he brings Mumbai to life. Even the smells permeate!

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    • Just ordered the Mistry novel purely on the strength of your comment that he brings the smells of Mumbai to life. I can already feel the spicy scents mingled with rotting vegetation (lol). What else is on the agenda for the summer school?

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