Like the strong and unconventional Anjali in A Breath of Fresh Air, Amulya Malladi in her second novel provides us with yet another female character who fights her own battles and emerges scathed but victorious. Priya Rao is a 27-year-old headstrong, opinionated, educated woman who is independent and self-sufficient. After seven years of going to school and working in the U.S., she cannot escape the prospect of returning home to Hyderabad for a visit. It is mango season, her favorite time of year when the family gathers together over bushels of the fragrant fruit to make mango pickle. However, the intoxicating sweetness of the mango may not be enough to see her through her own “pickle”: the task of announcing to her family a triple bomb: she is engaged to the man she has been living with for two years, an American named Nick Collins.
Malladi herself is married to a foreigner, a Dane, and as she says on her Web site, “though I haven’t been back [to India] in eight years, I can well imagine the culture shock. I have experienced it several times when I watch an Indian movie or when a friend back in India says something that burns my ears through the telephone lines.” She also states that her family is nothing like Priya’s family, but she has known people who have been completely disowned because of the marriage choices they make. Through her own life experiences and these acquaintances, she has created a character to respect and to cheer for.
Homecoming for Priya results in a clash of emotions. From the moment she arrives, she realizes that India and her family have become foreign to her. Mango season was always a time when the juices of the mango dripped down her hands, her arms, her neck, her throat. All that’s dripping now is her sweat. She has always been outspoken, and while her ability to debate issues once endeared her to Thatha, her grandfather, the patriarch of the family now considers her views insolent. Despite her fondest memories, the India she now sees is dirty, germ-ridden, and oozing with uncomfortable attitudes. The prejudices, practices, and gender bias that once were common, unnoticed parts of life are now glaringly-unacceptable to her, including racism, casteism, child-bearing demands, hints of gender-based abortions, and statements made about people and places based on assumption and ignorance rather than fact and knowledge. “I was seeing this world, my ex-world from my Americanized vision. This ex-world of mine was different to me now from what it had been before. I saw some things better, while other things had blurred beyond recognition.”
Priya’s family is traditional Telugu Brahmin, strict, conventional, set in its ways. She prepared herself for the worst regarding the family’s reaction to her impending marriage, but there had been no warning that she would be stepping into a beehive of familial controversies. When it is learned that her Uncle Anand made a love marriage with a Maharashtrian Brahmin, Priya sees the depth to which this wounds the family; the marriage is both unsanctioned and impure. Her Aunt Sowmya, only three years her senior, is still unmarried, a burden to the family after scores of bride viewings and rejections. Priya’s younger brother, Nate, is seeing an ultra-modern girl from Delhi, but he hides her from his parents. Ma and Nanna, her parents, want her to marry a nice Indian boy (Telugu Brahmin, of course), so they set up a meeting with a young man they feel would be good for her but better for the family. While Priya’s grandparents still rule the family, only Uncle Jayant and his wife Lata seem to be in a position to produce the golden egg: at Thatha’s request, they are pregnant with the demand that this third child be a boy, a pure-line male Brahmin heir to carry on the family name properly. Not one of these scenarios makes Priya’s own announcement any easier to broach.
Torn between what her contemporary heart and mind tell her and what her deep-rooted Indianness reminds her, Priya struggles with the cultural conflicts she knew she would one day have to face. “If push came to shove, which it would when I told my parents and Thatha about Nick, would I just walk out and fly away to the United States to be Nick’s wife? What about the daughter, granddaughter, cousin, niece inside me? Would I happily sacrifice all those identities to be Nick’s wife? I knew I would, I was sure I would, but it would be a sacrifice, and a big one.”
As she stands her ground, issue to issue, person to person, crisis to crisis, Priya learns that she is the voice of others, those silent women in her family who merely wish and never speak, who only dream and never act. And by the strength gained as they gather together over those bushels of mangoes, Priya makes her final decision in the only way she knows as the right one … in her heart and in her mind.
Well-written with balanced portions of traditional tugs and contemporary needs, conviction and conern, The Mango Season is a work of soul searching, decision making, and strength building. Malladi’s second novel stacks up as a winner for women and a winner for readers. As a bonus and to celebrate her own heritage, Malladi has included several recipes from avakai to mango pappu to perugannam.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as an advertising and promotions copywriter.
GRAPHICSWALLAH: Graphics in India. By Keith Lovegrove. Photography by Andrew Hasson. HarperDesign International. Paperback. 160 pages.
From loud movie billboards to torn and tattered election posters; signs painted in English, Tamil, Hindi; on auto-rickshaws, walls, shops, doors, everywhere, the 250 illustrations in this book lovingly document India’s vast graphics industry. Hasson’s stunning photographs capture a colorful range of innovative commercial art, sometimes cleverly cropped to show minute details, often zooming out to suggest the incongruousness of their contexts. With his detailed captions and thoughtful essays Lovegrove takes us behind the scenes to explore the lives of humble artists, the complex cultural dynamics, and market forces that intersect to yield this indigenous art form. The result is an entertaining coffee-table book that’s a delight to browse.