On almost every page of Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, named for the block of flats in which the three central characters live, the calmness of the narrative appears to be a build-up to an explosive finale. Detailing with meticulous attention what each of the three does as they go about their daily lives, the storyline is so front-loaded with possibilities that a crisis, even a catastrophe, seems inevitable.
This is reinforced all the more by the choice of Mumbai as a setting. The placid prose—not as ultra slo-mo or as up close to the subject as Amit Chaudhuri’s, but definitely a reminder—is almost a set-up for the seemingly mundane lives of Mohan, his wife Lakshmi and his nephew Ashish to intersect with one of the many violent events to have befallen the city. So it is both a relief and a disappointment that nothing of the sort happens—despite the (unintentional?) red herrings in the form of Ashish wandering past Leopold Café and the Gateway of India late one evening.
A relief, because that would have been far too obvious a device, neither original nor particularly unexpected any more. But a disappointment, because at least something would have happened in this novel to imbue it with a raison d’etre.
In terms of atmospherics and the ability to use words to paint multimedia pictures, Joseph is a joy to read. From the 2BHK in a Mumbai housing society to the pavement in front of the post office where Mohan spends his day writing letters for those who cannot write their own, from the innocuous dosa-vendor—not even a bit part but still so easy to imagine the way he’s described— to the affable recipe-writer with a big newspaper, everything and everyone comes alive with startling completeness. Detail gets its just due.
Ambient detail: One of the vignettes of Mumbai in Joseph’s novel are the pavement book-sellers of Fort. Natasha Hemrajani/Hindustan Times
Unfortunately, only one-and-a-half other incidents of note beyond the ones mentioned on the book jacket take place. After Mohan’s nephew Ashish moves into the empty nest with him and his wife Lakshmi, two journeys of self-discovery are initiated. In one, Mohan gets back in touch with his ambition—and, perhaps, latent skill—as a writer of fiction. In the other, Lakshmi finally protests against a marriage that is not even an empty ritual any more.
True to Joseph’s quiet writing, neither is attended by fireworks. In fact, Lakshmi’s revolt is more perceived than described, since it is viewed through the husband’s lens and not the wife’s. And knitting these two strains together, in a sense, is Ashish, whose sexual choice is the unconventional one. There’s no drama, besides romance and heartbreak, over that either—and Ashish’s sexual orientation almost becomes a symbol for the road less travelled that both his uncle and aunt manage to tread on in their own way.
Maybe this is indeed how things happen in real life—in small, discrete actions punctuated by daily routine, where nothing of individual significance happens, but small events eventually add up to major change. But if art were to have imitated life here, things would not have slid so smoothly into place as they do in the last few chapters of Saraswati Park. Joseph seems almost compelled to knit the threads into a pleasing pattern that is clearly contrived. Here was an opportunity to leave the reader with a sense of disquiet, to wonder what would happen next.
But for that, this novel would have had to be open-ended, would have had to leave the characters with choices but not decisions, would have had to acknowledge that ordinary people are often caught in that place between dissatisfaction and indecision, which they cannot ultimately escape. Here, however, each of the characters finds a convenient way out.
Joseph captures the surface of human behaviour beautifully as well as sympathetically. Her eyes and ears are perceptive but not judgemental, her writing unemotional but sensitive. She sees beyond the manic energy and urban mythology of Mumbai to the far more real daily rhythm of existence, which is neither a continuous struggle nor one long uninterrupted hustle. In the process, she brings alive both the city and the people with sharply etched, but not jagged edges. It’s sad, then, that the novel loses the plot—for there never was one to speak of.
Arunava Sinha translates Bengali fiction into English. His published translations include Sankar’s Chowringhee and The Middleman; Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl; and Moti Nandy’s Striker, Stopper.
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