Pai’s debut novel offers an entertaining, thoughtful look at a young man’s change of fortune as the sudden death of his father ends one chapter of his life and promptly begins another.
Vithal Hegde, a college student living in India, has just turned 21 and has his whole life ahead of him: he’s only a year away from graduating and has high aspirations of working in sales or pharmaceuticals. These ambitions are far removed from his father’s job delivering food as a dabhawala and signify his success and achievement—largely due to his father’s hard labor to finance Vithal’s education. But days after Vithal’s birthday, his father suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving the young man with no choice but to leave college and adopt his father’s humble trade. He faces scorn and mockery from his close friends, Peter and Irfan, but resigns himself to his new job. He finds it physically draining but ultimately rewarding as he supports his mother and sister. But his early introduction to adulthood takes a troubling turn when he learns of corruption that affects Irfan’s father’s business as well as others’. A vicious cycle of greed and bribery allows “hawkers” to disrupt competing businesses and stop the police from interfering. Vithal’s responsibility toward his own family widens to include his fellows, and he chairs a committee to rally the local residents against injustices in their city. In this inspiring tale, Pai shows Vithal and his friends striving to “in a small way or a big way [be] a part of the solution” instead of part of the problem. The story of Vithal’s coming-of-age, told from his first-person point of view, is a timeless one of friendship, ambition, and determination. The prose is candid and casual, giving readers a sense of sitting alongside the young protagonist as he matures and grows (“Looking around it was just amazing even to my inexperienced eyes, to see a nation doing so much that is not wanted and doing so little about what is wanted”). He and his friends are well-sketched characters, and their struggles between idealism and self-absorption make them relatable and likable.
A powerful tale about one person’s ability to make a difference.