It’s seldom that I pick up a book by an author from the Indian sub continent and find it disappointing. I don’t mean to suggest there is style of writing particular to fiction from this part of the world, or that its authors restrict themselves to a narrow range of topics. If anything the opposite is true — for sure there are novels that deal with specific ‘local’ issues like the struggle against colonial control but there are also novels that deal with themes that are universal.
Saraswati Park, the debut novel from Anjali Joseph, is a case in point. While firmly evoking the smells and sounds of Mumbai, Joseph’s focus is on issues with which it’s easy to engage: the small frustrations of family life and the hopes and disappointments of relationships.
The principal characters are Mohan and Lakshmi Karekar a middle aged, middle-class couple who live in the (fictional) housing complex of Saraswati Park in suburban Mumbai.
All around them they see change as Mumbai transforms itself into an economic powerhouse. Mohan is part of the city’s past, one of the few remaining professional ‘letter-writers’ in a world that is fast embracing electronic communication.
He spends his days under a tree near the post office where he writes letters for those who never learned to read or write. He once had ambitions of being a different kind of writer, one whose words would be published in book form, but he’s accepted that this is never going to happen. .
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 secondhand books at Fountain area. His habit of buying these books (especially those with wide margins so he can make notes) is a source of much irritation for his wife.
His wife 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.
The couple’s humdrum life changes when their 19 year old nephew Ashish moves in with them so he can complete his education.
He’s a young man adrift in the world, struggling to accept his sexuality and unable to focus on his final year studies in literature. He 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.
This was one of the secret jokes about marriage. People turned out to be exactly the opposite of how they’d seemed at first; they then went on changing randomly, as though enacting a hypothesis of unceasing chaos.
But there is a fourth — equally important — character in this novel: the city of Mumbai 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 where she was born. She combines this with the objectivity of being able to view her home nation from a distance: Joseph moved to England with her family at the age of seven though has regularly returned to Mumbai.
If you enjoy character-driven novels and books set in India, give yourself a treat add Saraswati Park to your ‘to read’ list.
Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph: Footnotes
Saraswati Park was published in 2010 by Harper Collins. It went on to win the Betty Trask Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. Anjali Joseph received further accolades when she was named by The Telegraph as one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40. Her second novel Another Country (2012), was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and her third novel, The Living, was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.