Striking no chord

It was the description ‘His experiment at eating fish leads to the accidental death of his grandmother’ that drew my attention. And here is what I figured the hard way. Anand Mahadevan’s The Strike is the story of a boy growing up in the quagmire of a middle class Brahmin world with its quintessential overtones of religion, class, politics and the shushed undertones of his encounters with sexuality. 

With ample train journeys providing a crunchy narrative, politics and cinema are tossed in equal portions, a dash of encroaching slums for flavour, a pinch of engagement ceremony for taste and a generous dollop of Manusmriti scooped in for good measure and health  and the incontestable formula is ready — a generous helping of this snack in the first 50 pages and you know what awaits you... a story that bites off more than it can chew. 

Told amidst vivid tours on the sprawling railroads of the country, the plot progresses in six sections. ‘Desire’, the prologue, introduces us to Hari who brims with innocuous curiosity. ‘Habits’ describes the boy’s rather easy-going life with friends. ‘Cruelty’ highlights one of Hari’s Madras visits where he is harassed by Vishu, the servant’s son while the family comes to terms with his uncle having brought home an American wife.

Wedged in by the ‘strike’ following the death of the god-like-revered actor-politician MGR, ‘Attachment’ takes us along on the tragic train journey that Hari and his mother take on the Christmas eve of 1987. The final parts, ‘Opposition’ and ‘Protection’, deal with the harried pack-up of the plot. Tamil preoccupation with a heady film-politics concoction and Tamil-language fanaticism form the warp and weft in the plot-weave. 

Certain musings about Hari’s fascination, doubts and confusion delve dexterously into the indecipherable depths of an adolescent’s mind. The plot frames Hari’s commute from the happy station called childhood into the mesmerising madness called adolescence; an excursion that children in India undertake all by themselves sans authentic sex education.
This debut throws up a dozen or more noteworthy characters like Anamika the friend and her mother Mrs Mukherjee the implicit leftist; Suman the IAS-aspirant; Mukund the superstar wannabe; Radha the omniscient eunuch and Mohan the best friend who evaporates mid-narrative leaving the reader with an aftertaste of decidedly underdeveloped characterisation. A variety of issues surface with Hari’s lack of Tamil proficiency leading to graffiti against family in Madras to Mrs Sharma, widowed in the 1984 Sikh riots whose ‘Peace-Keeping’ son was shot by LTTE rebels in Jaffna to Radha’s fateful date with the Bhopal Gas tragedy. But dishearteningly none collate with the narrative to take the plot forward. Having procured a spot on the sidelines these characters and snippets stay staring as the linear plot passes by.
 
The ultimate resolution of Hari’s conflict is derailing in that the novel, progressing through the boy’s eyes until now switches tracks without warning and the reader is left in the lurch with conniving adults hatching chaotic and corrupt schemes to haul the boy out of his predicament. The novel is a writing-course product complete with ALL of the prescribed characters, events and scenarios for success, a Vitamin-B tablet that fails to nourish.

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