Lothe’s debut historical novel offers the story of an Indian boy coming-of-age in the early 20th century.
According to the family astrologer, Shyam Shirodkar will eventually experience two nearly deadly accidents—before meeting his end in a third: “The question was not if but when the event would happen. Folks were so sure that they did not even call the doctor when Shyam fell ill.” As the story opens, his mother is dead, his father has remarried, and one of the three predicted accidents has already come to pass. Shyam is largely ignored by his extended family except for his kind, older cousin, Veemal. This general coldness leads Shyam to eventually leave home to receive an education at a Christian missionary college in Nagpur, and he begins to question the old ways of his former culture. In a country where Hindus, like the Shirodkars, are increasingly in conflict with Muslim neighbors, Western culture seems to offer a potential alternative for Shyam—until a massive war in Europe erupts and touches the lives of many Indian people. As Shyam grows and changes, so does his country around him, and neither of their fates are certain. Lothe writes in a highly detailed prose style that effectively captures the rigid traditions of life in Shyam’s Berar Province: “They quenched their thirst with another cup of hot tea since drinking water at the bus stand would guarantee a serious case of dysentery….After a couple incidents involving blown tires and interminable delays, the vehicle reached Amravati at dusk.” Overall, this is a slow-moving epic of family, philosophy, and cultural upheaval—a kind of novel that’s not often seen nowadays. Although the pace occasionally drags, Lothe manages to balance its many elements in a manner that makes the story feel at once personal and societal. Using Christianity as a way to explore the practices of Hinduism, for example, makes for a clever entrance into traditional Indian culture for insiders and outsiders alike.
An ambitious and mostly successful work about an adolescent’s challenges to tradition.