THE BETTER MAN by Anita Nair, Picador, 2000, 361p, $24.
In An Obedient Father Akhil Sharma, whose short stories have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, has penned a promising, if excessively dark, debut novel. In this tale of child abuse and political corruption, Ram Karan is an inspector for the Delhi School System and a “moneyman,” or a bribe collector, for Mr. Gupta, a sleazy Congress Party boss. Corpulent, aging, and self-loathing, Ram Karan laments in a moment of introspection: “You jiggle the years in your pocket, thinking you are a rich man, and suddenly you have spent everything.”
A widower, Ram Karan, lives in a tiny flat near a squatter’s colony in Old Delhi. His recently widowed daughter, Anita, and her 8-year-old daughter Asha, share the flat with him. One night, in a drunken stupor, Ram Karan commits a sexual act with his granddaughter and is caught by Anita. We soon learn that this is not his only reason for self-hatred; 20 years ago he had frequently raped Anita.
When Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated, the country becomes mired in religious and political upheaval that lead to the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr. Gupta opportunistically changes his allegiance from the Congress Party to BJP and, in the process, betrays Ram Karan. This perilous time has barely ended when the long-suffering Anita exacts her revenge by disclosing her father’s deviant behavior to his relatives and Ram Karan’s world collapses around him.
Sharma’s talent lies in bringing alive his characters and the dark world they inhabit. For the same reason, however, the book can become oppressive at times. Out on the street Ram Karan notices “a starving boy with a shaved head and ringworm scars.” During reminiscences of the past, he keeps hearing a bang in his head which is “my mother’s stomach exploding in the funeral pyre.” No wonder he vomits so many times! Throughout, Sharma takes a stern view of India with its poverty, rigid social hierarchies, and corrupt political systems, allowing little, if any, of the richness of its venerable culture to shine through.
A quieter and more playful novel, also featuring a guilt-ridden male protagonist, is Anita Nair’s The Better Man. Nair who lives in Bangalore, India is a regular contributor to the Times of India. At its heart the story is about the power of relationships. It is set in the fictitious backwater village of Kaikurussi in Kerala where little of interest happens. The protagonist, 58-year-old Mukundan Nair, is a bachelor who is still “floundering in a swamp of uncertainties.” Having fled the village at an early age to escape his domineering father, he returns to find the tyrant, except for failing health, essentially unchanged. When alone, Mukundan often hallucinates and confronts the ghost of his dead mother whom he had failed to save from her adulterous husband. Nevertheless Mukundan seeks to establish himself in the community by currying the favor of the village elites, thereby proving to himself that he is equal to his father.
He befriends Bhasi. This housepainter, an educated man with a deep knowledge of herbs, aims to “to heal and control.” Over time he does help Mukundan regain normalcy. Mukundan also secretly visits Anjana, a woman who has been wronged and deserted by her husband. Mukundan wants to marry her and live in “magical happiness.”
How loyal is Mukundan to those he cherishes? The test comes when he is pressured by the community leaders to take over a plot of land owned by Bhasi. The same leaders also demand that Mukundan not be seen with a married woman. The subsequent chain of events leads to a surprising climax, which justifies the book’s title.
One wonders why Nair develops the male players more patiently than the female ones who, for the most part, are voluptuous providers of bodily comforts, sought mainly as passive companions and lovers. They are easily abandoned by the village men, as they have been by Nair.
GROWING UP BRITISH
LIFE ISN’T ALL HA HA HEE HEE by Meera Syal. The New Press, $22.95
Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee
Sunita, a former law student, has married the man of her choice. Now settled into a family life with two children, she finds herself bored, depressed, and overweight.
Tania, bright, svelte, sharp featured, and “greedy,” works for a television station. She has sidestepped her parent’s attempts at arranged marriages and now lives with her Caucasian boyfriend Martin.
Finally, there is Chila who with her delicate charms has been deemed by her family and friends to be too slow and naïve to attract a husband.
The story begins with Chila confounding this belief by marrying “Dreamboat Deepak,” a wealthy businessman who has rejected many stylish women, but is smitten with guileless Chila. He thinks of marriage as a rebirth, but soon wonders about having “the perfect wife, the perfect life, flowing water and no idea of what it all means.”
Then Tania films a documentary that shows her friends and their husbands in an unfavorable light. Boundaries of relationships are transgressed and long-buried passions are unleashed. Slowly Chila becomes aware of the sobering realities of her marriage. In the end, she turns out to be the one who holds life if not her marriage together as the web of relationships around her degenerates into a morass of betrayal and deceit.
Alternatively hilarious and scathing, occasionally poignant, Syal’s tale sheds much light on growing up in British Indian society, with its nostalgic rituals and pretensions, emphasis on family and duty, and the children who are forced to live double lives as a result.
Some of the plot, especially the relationship entanglements are somewhat predictable, but novelist-screenwriter Syal (“Anita and Me,” “Bhaji on the Beach”) manages to hold the reader’s interest through her energetic prose and biting commentary about people and places. And although the book is a light read overall, the characters will linger in your mind long after you finish.
Bharti Kirchner is the author of six books, two of which are novels: Shiva Dancing (Dutton 1998) and Sharmila’s Book (Dutton 1999). These reviews have been reprinted from the Seattle Times.
is a story about the testing of friendship between a trio of thirty-something British-born Indian women living in London.