About halfway through, just as one is beginning to wonder if there’s really any point to the thoroughly enjoyable saga of the madcap Banerjee household in Bombay (defiantly not Mumbai), Cappuccino Dusk becomes another book.
It leaves the city, abandons the lovingly built-up Banerjees, and sets off for the forests of Aarey, where a brigand-type character hunts poachers. Over the next several chapters, we’re taken on a detour of Baul life and lore, explained the deeper connections between man and environment, and in a revelation one sees from a mile off, told how this narrative ties up with that of the Banerjees.
The canvas: Basu’s story is set around a Bengali family in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Except it doesn’t, not really. Maltesh, the cartoonist with an afternoon newspaper who is whisked off into the forests, is apparently the victim of mistaken identity: His kidnappers were looking for one Malati Iyer, a sub-editor who had written a negative report about the outlaw. The Baul-turned-brigand explains it thus: “I know, I know. (My men) picked the wrong person. It’s unpardonable. They are good men but not very intelligent.” For the purposes of the book, however, the goons are very intelligent: If they hadn’t picked the wrong person, Maltesh would have been yet another loose end at the conclusion of Cappuccino Dusk. Take him out and the novel would have lost a colourful, endearing character. Having introduced him, however, debutant novelist Kankana Basu doesn’t seem sure where he fits in her scheme of things.
That scheme centres firmly around the Banerjee apartment at A-502, Pushpa Milan. In the manner of the early 1970s’ films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu creates a love-me-love-my-neighbour family of oddballs and acolytes who ooze camaraderie and good humour. There’s Ira Banerjee, ineffective matriarch of the brood comprising budding architect Siddharth, budding airhead Mishti, strident feminist Bonny and newspaper editor Som; and her mother-in-law with the very modern name of Shreya. Even the songs come in, for this is a musical menagerie, inspired by everyone from Shakespeare to Sahir Ludhianvi. Basu’s irreverent assessment of the immigrant Bengali ethos and her spot-on take on familial banter make the introductory section eminently enjoyable, if more than slightly over-written. It’s when she moves away from the centre of the apartment, literally and metaphorically, that things fall apart.
That the sprawl of Cappuccino Dusk is misconceived is apparent in the case of Malati. As the sub-editor who gets under Som-the-misogynist’s skin, she plays a crucial role, but once the chinks appear in his armour, you get the sense the author doesn’t quite know what to do with her without heading the Mills and Boon way.
The plot mishaps and an ill-defined timeline undermine Basu’s real strengths: a gift for humour— rare enough in Indian fiction in English—and an unerring eye for people. Her characters, in fact, deserved better, tighter, less predictable stories.
Cappuccino Dusk is perhaps best described as one novella and several short stories in the matrix of a novel. It’s an uneven, strangely frustrating work: You get a glimpse of the author’s talent and the possibilities of her core ideas, yet they stop short of being realized. One hopes that like Halfway House—where Basu’s first collection of short stories was set, and which plays a minor role in this novel—the Banerjees will reappear in a future work.
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