Publisher/Format: Harper Perennial,trade paperback, 333 pages
Year of publication: 1988
Subject: Women's lives in India
Setting: Kerlala India
Source: Public library
The winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, this exquisite novel about women's role and lives in India in the 1960's and onward, is part of an ongoing series we are reading at our library showing the roles and stories of women in a variety of cultures. This one blew us all away both from the story itself, and from the pure beauty of the language.
The story of a multi-generational family features a grandmother who manages a Pickle factory (actually what we think of as chutney), who is almost completely blind, who plays the violin, and who endures incredible beatings from her husband every night after he retires and has nothing to do. It is only after their son Chacko returns to the area having been divorced from his English wife and threatens his father with dire consequences that the old man stops beating his wife. Mammachi (the grandmother), while she certainly doesn't like being beaten, doesn't seem to feel there is anything out of the ordinary about it, and certainly doesn't feel empowered herself to end the beatings.
Then there is the daughter Ammu, divorced mother of the "two-egg" twins Rahel and Estah, who engages in an illicit affair with an untouchable, a man adored by the children. She has not given the twins a last name because she is considering going back to her maiden name, but feels between her father and her abusive husband, there's not much to choose from and so doesn't want to be associated with either.
There's another auntie who converted to Roman Catholicism so she could be close to a priest for whom she had fallen, even going so far as to enter a convent. When she realized he was not going to leave the priesthood and marry her, she leaves the convent, returns to the family home, and adds to the general mayhem. Religion doesn't seem to play a major role in her life and she is livid when she discovers the good Father has left the RC priesthood, converted to hinduism, and taken a hindu wife.
The story actually opens with a funeral. Sophie "Mol", Chacko's daughter, and her English mother have come for a visit at Christmas time. Sophie Mol drowns, and the story starts with her funeral and progress backwards and forwards from there. The time line is somewhat difficult to follow at first, but the lyricism of the words strung together and made up with perfect precision to describe a thought makes the reader forget any problem with story line. Every page has sentences and often paragraphs of prose that is so fantastic that it is difficult for us mere mortals to describe it. I could give a quote from every page and not cover all the beauty of this writing.
Here are a few examples:
"Rahel's new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen."
"Margaret Cochamma climbed into the advertisement (the family car with signs painted on it) with her brown back-freckles and her arm-freckles and her flowered dress with legs underneath."
Ammu flew through her dream on heavy, shuddering wings, and stopped to rest, just under the skin of it. She had pressed roses from the blue cross-stitch counterpane on her cheek. She sensed her children's faces hanging over her dream, like two dark, worried moons, waiting to be let in.This is a book that belongs in the library of every serious lover of literature. It's one I certainly plan to read again, and again. As a cultural exposè it is excellent. As an all you can eat buffet of exquisite language, it's indescribable.
"D'you think she's dying?" she heard Rahel whisper to Estha.
"It's an afternoon-mare," Estha-the Accurate replied. "She dreams a lot."