Thursday, January 8, 2009

Meanwhile, Upriver

Bookblah has its own blog now, thanks entirely to Nitya's exertions over one long afternoon of her life that ain't ever coming back! So, starting all over again here..

Meanwhile, Upriver is written by Chatura Rao, a name I'd earlier seen in anthologies for children , and is marked as her debut novel for adults.

I discovered this little book through a two line review in some tabloid I normally never bother to read. And am the gladder for it, because this was one of the better books I read last year. I've also always been fascinated by temple towns, for reasons far removed from personal faith, and this book has some beautiful descriptions of the grande dame herself, Benaras. I am also a sucker for stories about children, and with feisty female characters, and this book scores on both counts.

Meanwhile.. traces the stories of two social misfits living in Benaras. Yamini is a thirty eight year old spinster, lonely and overweight She tends to her ailing father, teaches math at a local school, befriends stray dogs and beggars, fights for animal rights and keeps everybody else at bay with her sharp tongue. Shiva is an eleven year old orphan, found abandoned on the ghats and raised by Bhyom Baba, a local sadhu with aspirations to power. The boy worships his adoptive father, yet longs for the mother he has never known. The stories play out against the backdrop of the annual Ramlila, and the power struggles between rival ashram groups in the city.

Shiva bags the role of Hanuman and befriends Shantanu,the quiet young boy chosen to play Sita.Yamini finds herself reluctantly drawn to a man researching the city, even as she becomes slowly aware of the quiet strengths of a suitor she has rejected long ago.Then, things begin to fall apart. Communal tension rears its ugly head. The rivalry between the ashram factions seeps down into the younger members, and Shiva and his friend pay a terrible price for this. Yamini finds love, then loses it.Shiva gradually discovers sinister aspects to the man he considers his father. And on one dark night, when the two lonely protagonists wash up on the steps of the ghat, they finally meet.

If I had to use one word to describe the language of this book, it would have to be 'quiet'. This is finally a small story about small lives. There is restraint in the use of words, even in the stormier parts of the story. The descriptions of the city and the Ganga, are evocative - they encompass the filth as well as the beauty that makes a timeless. I liked the device of chapters alternating between the lives of the protagonists, intersecting every now and then.I loved the character of Yamini, this strong angry woman defiantly living her life in the face of social convention. And being also a sucker for happy endings, I liked the way the story ends gently and on an open note, as a ragtag family comes together in the aftermath of the violence unleashed on them. (No, no, this is no spoiler, but an invitation for fellow suckers).I even liked the sketch on the book cover, though not the choice of colours - deep blue, bright yellow - and the bombastic liner notes are in sharp contrast to the prose within.

Nevertheless, these were details easily overlooked for this sad, sweet story.

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