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A post from the past

Lalitha Subramanian. October 6, 2013, DHNS: 19:30 IST
Popular Indian-American writer Shobhan Bantwal refers to her writing as ‘Bollywood in a Book — multicultural commercial fiction with romantic elements’. Spot on.

I have just read my second Bantwal novel, The Unexpected Son, and find it superior to my first Bantwal experience from this summer (The Reluctant Matchmaker — fun, but filmy and slightly shallow). Happily, The Unexpected Son has a lot more depth. It’s an intriguing plot — a mother is sought out to help a dying son — but the mother is unaware of his very existence. How’s that?

The opening paragraphs carry a frisson of anxiety, as New Jersey-based Vinita Patil fingers an envelope that has come all the way from Mumbai. ‘Her instincts were prickling’. After all, inexpensive phone calls and emails were the norm. Not snailmail.

So this post from the past pops up in a calm present, creating a tsunami of shock, disbelief, realisation, responsible action….it’s also about doing what’s right, not what’s convenient; about humanity, goodness, tradition, immaturity, life’s lessons. And very well woven in is a thread involving contemporary issues like linguistic chauvinism, political opportunism, bigotry, mob mentality and other such ills of a multi-cultural society. Finally, after a small unexpected twist, it’s all neatly sewed up, just like a satisfying Bollywood film.

And as with any good story, written or filmed, the characters manage to linger and take up space in the audience’s mind. One can also understand, relate to these believable characters.

There’s Vinita, a happy homemaker cum working woman, cocooned in the warmth of a small and loving family; there’s her younger self, 30 years back, unwillingly drawn into the web of a suave seducer; there’s Vinita’s close college friend Prema trying to din sense into 19-year-old Vinita’s brain, not succeeding, and there are many more typical characters, family members that almost come off as caricatures, were it not for the ring of sincerity that runs through the tale’s telling. The traditional parents and responsible elder brother — these stock figures are needed to provide a solution to a middle-class muddle; the ‘issue’ is taken care of, the blissfully ignorant problem-girl persuaded to get on with interrupted studies and life — and eventually saved by the appearance of an angelic groom from the US, a good and convenient solution…an unfinished story too good to be true, and so the fates test Vinita once again, 30 years on. Girish the angel is still human after all and hence hurt and bewildered, even while the understanding America-bred daughter attempts to play peace-maker.

The story has its heroes, villains and in-betweens. They are all there in different threads that are woven together seamlessly through varying time zones. The past is brought charmingly alive through the text — ‘Bombay Caf’ is the fashionable coffee shop from 1976, frequented by rich playboys like Sohm Kori in small town Palgaum (obviously a fictional recreation of the author’s own hometown of Belgaum, the Karnataka town bordering Maharashtra, caught in an ethnicity dispute similar to ‘Palgaum’). Small-town Vinita finds herself awed by the atmosphere in the chic coffee shop, a place she has been sweet-talked into, by the persistent Kori — whose imperfect features and reputation are evident to sensible Vinita as she sits across him — and yet this strictly brought up girl falls for the playboy’s brown-eyed charm. The fallout is in a way predictable, like a film from that period, and yet manages to ring true, thanks to Bantwal’s story-telling skills.

But a few loose threads do dangle; for instance — how did the nurse manage to discreetly contact Vinita after 30 years? Yet, overall, the novel passes the credibility test — the writer is said to have researched into the subject of Leukemia cure, before embarking on her story involving an inconvenient patient from the past. So, a thumbs up to Bantwal for a job well done — creating relatable characters that denote the times and mores of a traditional society in transition; some interesting observations (even playboys eventually take ‘the slow lackadaisical route’ to ultimate manhood); and holding her reader’s attention to the end. Her novel’s plot has interesting possibilities and she does justice in prose that serves the purpose. Not that she doesn’t attempt good lines. Sample — ‘Awkwardness lingered in the air like trapped cigarette smoke’. Good enough.

Sadly, a couple of clunky sentences are let through too; here’s one —‘But it’ (the envelope from India) ‘didn’t look like the occasional wedding invitation or the quarterly statements from the bank she and her husband maintained a small account in rupees, in India’.

Despite these bits, there’s sincerity, warmth, empathy, depth and drama in this tender tale about a mother’s belated attempts to set things right. Recommended.

The Unexpected son
Shobhan Bantwal
Fingerprint
2013, pp 327
250

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