The protagonist, Gopalakrishnan, is a man to whom things happen. These are not always events of an earth-shattering nature, but rather events that will cause the 65-year-old retired civil servant to pause and ruminate on not only the journey behind him, but what is left of his life ahead.
With his father dead and his mother needing to be taken care of, Gopu and his wife Parvati return to their original home, the southern village of Paavalampatti. There Gopu struggles to learn the rhythm and ways of the village and tries to forget his 40 years in New Delhi, a city he never wanted to leave:
Gopalakrishnan had spent more than 40 years, by far the greater part of his life, in New Delhi. He had gone there a young man; he had returned from there an old one. Maybe not old, exactly, but he certainly felt himself edging in that direction. He was sixty-five—seventy did not seem so far away now. His father had died quite unexpectedly the year before at the age of eighty-seven of (the doctors surmised) a heart attack. By that arithmetic he had a good twenty years or more—twenty years to spend in Paavalampatti, to which he had returned to be with his mother, abandoning his well-ordered, retired existence in Delhi. On the other hand, it was worth considering that only his mother stood now between him and death.
Shankar writes with amazing sensitivity and insight against a backdrop of a changing India that at times seems inscrutable to an older generation bound to parents, duty, marriage, and children. We see Gopu as a young man, struggling to make a life in New Delhi and then, again, towards the latter part of his life, once again adjusting to a new way of life.
With the lights of the Divali festival as a backdrop, Suresh, Gopu and Parvati’s only son, arrives home and unease settles in the household. The metaphor of Divali is a good one and as the festival approaches, so much about Gopu’s life and that of his son is illuminated. Gopu and his wife are faced with an unexpected challenge, but instead of breaking them, it seems to breathe new life into their reason for living.
Shankar writes of a character so totally human, it is impossible not to like him. Shankar’s portrayal of Gopu struggling quietly and profoundly, without bells, whistles, or gimmicks, is a fine achievement. And a rare one.