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.