The thing is, it’s all so recognizable and geography-neutral. Whether you are from the north or the south, the east or the west of India, middle class Indians are pretty much the same.
In spite of education, the girls are brought up second (if not outright subservient) to boys. The family pins its collective hopes upon them. The lure of the United States and a Green Card is of mythic proportions.
The social disconnect, the sense of familial alienation, the bewilderment born of trying to make sense of a society in economic flux, conflicting ideologies, the trauma of moving out of comfort zones, the sense of living someone else’s life, is all bitterly familiar.
In its essence, this book is about all these and thus, known territory. There is the “big house”, Neel Kamal, inhabited by Ashwath, his sister Savitri and their parents.
The boy from this good family in Bangalore carries upon his slender shoulders the weight of the family’s expectations.
There is the outhouse, in which swarm the family of Sanjeeva and Rakkama, inheritors of the appellation of religious mendicants and thus “chosen of god”. Their sons and daughters have inherited their father’s tall, slender frame and “a certain distant air”. It is Thippy, the youngest, you must look
Everyone has boys, including “top work Kaveramma” and Suchi Mama. All of them are burdened by expectations. All carry them lightly enough, except for Ashwath.
He gets to America, part promised land, part sanctuary, and there he stays for 25 years, wounded forever by a brush with Thippy, his difficult relationship with his father, his own easily-unravelled ambitions. He leaves Bangalore in 1981, and returns in 2007.
In between, whole lives, countries, ideologies and societies have unspooled from dogged socialism through destructive Left politics to an uneasy, misunderstood capitalism.
America is the land of opportunities but it is also unforgiving of wrong choices. Ashwath first battles the invisibility of being a foreigner, then gives in, forever the outsider. Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac deliver their final blows, forcing him to return to a world he can barely grasp.
Neel Kamal has fallen upon very hard times, but the ground on which it stands holds promise of a future even brighter than that offered by America.
The author understands exactly how, and weaves the story into the larger one offered by a changing India. Her prose is intermittently muscular and tenderly feminine, her focus laser-like, her characterization faithful to the truth of the human condition even as her literary style is endlessly inventive.
This same ability to observe keenly is brought to the quarter century in America that is actually Ashwath’s real life, the lion’s portion. Usha sees with the power of the x-ray to the reality beneath external manifestations of a society in the throes of over-consumption.
For the reader, she joins the dots, does the research, so that even the leaf of the ashwath tree in the grounds of the old house is described in its botanical glory, art galleries and their offerings in Chicago are dissected through his eyes. Financial scams, that are a death knell to his future, are sought to be explained.
For once, when the publishers refer to an author as one of India’s finest, they aren’t exaggerating. Usha K R is a superb writer with a sharply-defined literary style that is her own.
If there is one book you should read this year, it is this.