Tales of a city

Last Updated : 12 July 2014, 13:38 IST

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Do not judge a book by its cover, but when you don’t know the author, you will go by the cover, title, and blurb.

Mahesh Rao’s debut novel, The Smoke is Rising, is attractive on all the three counts.

The summary reads, “The future is here. India has just sent its first spacecraft to the moon, and the placid city of Mysore is gearing up for its own global recognition with the construction of HeritageLand — Asia’s largest theme park.

From behind the formidable gates of Mahalakshmi Gardens to the shanty houses on the edge of town, the people of Mysore are abuzz as they watch their city prepare for a complete transformation.”

We do not have much fiction in English set in the beautiful and diverse cities of India and much less in the enchanting city of Mysore.

That in itself is a reason to pick up the book — to know the city intimately.

Mysore, for any outsider, is one big tourist attraction with its palaces, temples, zoo and silk. Here, the story brings the other side of Mysore, the non-glamorous everyday to focus.

In an evocative language the author unfolds the many hues of the city: At Bamboo Corner a group of rubbish collectors were having a meeting in the shade of the giant bamboo.

Their blue jackets had been pulled over their saris and their carts stood parked in a neat line. Also under the bamboo, a couple of elderly women were stooped over the parched sward, trying to pick the long blades of grass for their pooja.

The shutter of the provision store on 11th cross road was half raised; inside, the shop owner was deep in prayer before a sandalwood carving of Ganesha.”

Mahesh Rao’s writing is full of observations made as the narrative shifts between its diverse characters.

Susheela, an attractive and elite widow in her early 60s, is upright and bored.

Widowed for three years and with two daughters settled abroad, Susheela is still seeking ways to put energy back into life. Her once active upper-crest social life seems to have all but disappeared since the death of her husband — “Whatever the real reason, a curtain had fallen with a heavy thud over the invitations to bridge evenings at the club, concerts at the palace, drinks at the JW Gold Club and dinners at the Galleria.

There were still weddings, housewarming and naming ceremonies, of course...”

Uma is Susheela’s maid — abjectly poor, unusually gritty and extremely enigmatic.

Her past is heavily speculated on, but nobody knows the truth.

Her singlehood has men of all kinds pursuing her, but she steadily ignores not just men, but everyone around her.

While Uma provides a backdrop for the author to showcase the agonies of the poor, Girish and Mala, a recently married couple, is his arsenal to explore the middle class.

Girish is short-tempered and disgruntled; Mala is docile and has only looked forward to marriage all her post-teen life.

Certainly the book is packed with many goods — it is an easy read with enough satire and one-liners. The writing is mature and smart. There is plenty of nonchalant allusions — ‘Soundarya Beauty Parlour’ to ‘turbaned hotel doorman’ — that put a smile on your face.

But this is not to say the book doesn’t have its faults.

“Savagely funny and deeply poignant, The Smoke Is Rising is a riveting portrait of a city hurtling towards an epic clash of modernity and tradition...”

The blurb clearly states that the novel is about showcasing the city and does not promise a racy, plot-driven page turner. However, one has to agree that central to any fiction is the story.

For all the good writing, there is no engaging story in this novel. The characters are well developed, but they are all completely disconnected from one another, telling us their own tales.

This is almost four short stories forced together into a novel.

Too many contrived situations and lengthy descriptions mar an otherwise good novel. Just when a thread starts to get interesting, the author diverts from it — with a detailed account of an inane television show (well, no need to narrate the stories of the soap operas or the movies the protagonist is watching), a spat in the parliament (any regular newspaper reader knows all these details.

Unless this has something to do with the story, such details are quite unnecessary,) or a two-page description of the building where the courts of Mysore are housed — these accounts do not support the story or the characters.

It is one of those novels that will entertain and irritate you in equal parts. The writing is good, the characters are well etched, and one will get to see Mysore more intimately and leave feeling like a local. However, there is no story as such,  and the narrative often digresses and dawdles.

The Smoke is Rising
Mahesh Rao
Random House
pp 328

Published 12 July 2014, 13:36 IST

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