Tragedy and powerful but fraying limitations on women roil an Indian family in this intense historical coming-of-age novel.
In 1957, the expectations for Indian women are pretty cut-and-dried: be a good housewife. Unfortunately, in the family of Achan Krishnan, a tax collector recently reassigned to the chilly Himalayan province of Assam as a punishment for not taking bribes, such certitudes no longer satisfy. His beautiful wife, Devi, longs for more erotic passion than the stolid Achan can muster; her longings inflamed by racy romance novels, she casts her gaze at a handsome British plantation manager who dances with her at parties while Achan fumes. As if to overcompensate for her improprieties, Devi strictly polices her two daughters: Anu, a dutiful teenager, and Kavita, an unruly, 9-year-old scamp. The family tensions ratchet up when Kavita’s little brother, Arun, the apple of his parents’ eye simply because he’s a son, gets eaten by a tiger during an outing to a park. The grief-stricken Devi shaves her head and goes silent, then rebounds into even more scandalous conduct with the Brit. As the girls head into adulthood and feel the liberating tremors of the 1960s, she imposes a straightjacketing virginity-protection regime on them—no contact with boys allowed—while plotting arranged marriages to dreary older men. But a violent rupture looms as Anu conceives a forbidden love with a boy not of her caste. Warriar’s (The Enemy Within, 2005, etc.) novel, told mainly through Kavita’s voice, steeps readers in Indian culture, reveling in vivid descriptions of foods, landscapes, colorful fashions, and convoluted mores. It’s also a subtle, gripping study of patriarchy as it blights women’s lives while poisoning their relationships with one another. Kavita grows up in a world that prizes her virginity yet subjects her to constant molestation attempts by men. Meanwhile, Devi—suffocating in a loveless marriage and a generally unfulfilled life and acting out in brazen ways—is determined to impose the same hell on her daughters; indeed, she comes to see them as the main stumbling blocks to her happiness. But although Devi’s an almost monstrous character, the author still manages to portray her sympathetically. Warriar’s richly textured novel portrays this unraveling family with real emotional depth, showing how social pressures turn parents and children against one another.
A finely wrought family drama.