Sprawling, intergenerational novel of life in South India in the first half of the 20th century.
Drawing on tales from her grandmother’s life, debut novelist Viswanathan spins the story of Sivakami, ten years old when we—and her future husband, who soon comes a-courting—meet her. Soon, married, she is 13, “and misses her mother’s hands in her hair each morning, and the little puppy her brothers had found a few weeks before she left, and so she weeps a little each day.” Her husband, 11 years older and already a widower, is a good man; he is an astrologer, a healer, spiritually inclined and a Brahmin (the last a very useful distinction in a class-ordered society). If Hanumarathnam has a fault it’s that he’s too quick to issue detailed instructions on all matters related to managing the household. At 18, with two children, Sivakami is a widow herself. “It is incredible to Sivakami,” writes Viswanathan, “that Hanumarathnam spent years preparing her for his passing,” but so he has done with all those instructions, and she is now ready to lead a life of comparative independence and self-reliance. It has not always been made easy for her, but she has raised her children and instructed her household to be tolerant and hardworking—models, in other words, for the independent, postcolonial India that is in the making, capable of rising above prejudice and the class divisions that divide the nation. Viswanathan narrates from the point of view of a modern Indian woman raised in the New World, looking back across decades and oceans and “lands and languages I know but that are not my own.” Her narrative, refreshingly, is free of anachronism, and she has a pleasing way of engaging the reader’s senses—not least with some mouth-watering descriptions of “dry and wet curries, pacchadis of yogurt and cucumber…deep-fried patties of lentil and chili,” and other such delicacies.
Of a piece with the recent works of Vikram Seth, and reminiscent at times of García Márquez—altogether a pleasure.