Makhhi baithe shahad par
Leene par liptaye
Haath male sir kar dhune
Laalach buri balaye
(The fly sits greedily on honey, wrapping its body in it, drowning in its own pool of greed)
In the world that this novel occupies, business slows between two and four in the afternoon, and even the flies go to sleep. But its covetous central characters don’t. They continue to scheme, revising their strategies for the kill: cold, hard cash.
Mumbai-based journalist Namita Devidayal’s second book —her first attempt at fiction—is a naked portrait of the baniya community in the Mumbai of the 1960s. The diasporic business class which possibly originated from the Marwar region in north-west India draws its name from Vaniji, Sanskrit for trader. They’re known for their formidable business acumen and in Devidayal’s words, “their boys (are) taught their multiplication tables in quarters”. Their pursuit of money is unabashed, and the usurping of each other’s properties and family jewels is common currency. Devidayal’s is not a diffused black and white rendition, it is a picture in full colour, with every wart and errant hair in focus.
Devidayal won the Vodafone Crossword Popular Book Award for her first book, The Music Room, in 2007. It was an intensely personal debut, drawn from her experiences with her music teacher Dhondutai Kulkarni—the last surviving student of virtuoso singers Kesarbai Kerkar and Alladiya Khan. With its part-biographical, part-historical structure, she strung together a sublime narrative of irony; a world where art is all-important, a world where pleasure is shunned. This first-hand insight was the book’s strength.
In her second coming, Devidayal doesn’t interject. There is room to believe that this is the portent of a maturing writer; one moving beyond the first person. Even though Devidayal grew up in a baniya family, and even though the Todarmal family at the heart of the story are baniyas who settled in Punjab like her family, Aftertaste is fiercely impersonal. It is not particularly condescending even while the author delves into the intricacies of illegal havala arrangements or unseemly betel-leaf addictions. But there are subtle hints of arrogance, like when Devidayal, who has an Ivy League education, writes about one of the central characters being admitted to a “medium-grade” business school in upstate New York.
Bittersweet: Devidayal’s characters obsess about their inheritance from the family’s mithai business. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
Aftertaste is about four siblings, each of whom has a different reason to be obsessed with the inheritance from the family’s thriving mithai (sweet) business. It is the matriarch, called Mummyji, who drives the action forward. Some of the human flies who eat their way through the story are distinguished by their sophistication, such as a predilection for Kabir’s couplets. But that notwithstanding, they’re all united by a strange brand of pecuniary lust. In a blog on her publisher Random House India’s website, Devidayal summarizes her thesis: No matter what they say, at the heart of any good Indian baniya family lies money, not love.
She uses an interesting narrative tool, opening her story close to its climactic realization, and moving back and forth, with the festival of Diwali—which is of extreme significance to the community—as a pinning point. If the structure fails anywhere, it is near the end, where the author seems compelled to bring things to closure: to lighten the grey tones with a sudden and excessive blob of white.
Through the text, Devidayal’s language gives way to excessive flourishes. These metaphors can be tedious: Such as “Mummyji kept (her family) together like a stick of Fevicol that was slowly drying up”. In another instance, the eldest of her four children, who is called Rajan Papa, “started chewing on the cuticles of his nails, leaving bits of skin hanging off his fingers like laundry on a clothesline”. In a bid to capture linguistic specifics, the author evokes words such as the Hindi suniye, a popular term of address used by Indian wives for their husbands. This is translated literally to “listen” through the pages—which takes away from its sociolinguistic trappings.
There are things you will learn while reading the book, and here Devidayal betrays her journalistic roots. For those familiar with the award-winning American television series Mad Men, which documents the advertising community of New York City in the 1960s, Aftertaste gives a similar inside-out account. The period nostalgia is all there too, from Binaca Geetmala to Vicco Vajradanti toothpaste. The author reveals several trade secrets of the Indian food business: Caterers place their most expensive dishes at the end of the buffet table—food fatigue and a lack of plate space ensure that guests consume less of these dishes. But it is in her description of mithais—from the khoya barfis garnished with almonds to the syrupy malpuas—that she excels, ensuring that either way, Aftertaste leaves you hungry.