Travails of a town

Nearly 20 years after her richly imagined novel, The Scent of Pepper, Kavery Nambisan returns with her seventh work of fiction, A Town Like Ours. To hold Kavery’s latest book in one’s hands is to remember the literary scene when The Scent of Pepper was published,  and recognise how much the world of Indian publishing has changed since the late 90s.

A Town like Ours begins slowly and awkwardly, almost with its choice of an omniscient narrative in the first person and present tense. Several pages in, one’s patience is rewarded as it pulls one deep into the story of Manohar Kripa and Saroja Sampathu, Gundumani and Rukmini and other characters who live in the village-turned-town of Pingakshipura.

 

Their stories, and her own, are recounted by retired whore Rajakumari, “a hag in a long white skirt and a shirt chemise that barely hides” her “fatness”, who lives in a “one-window room with a cow-turned-buffalo for company” on the temple premises.


If Manohar and Kripa are happy in their 14-year-old marriage, it is despite their not having any children. Manohar teaches English at the local college, and Kripa spends her free time painting, a time when she is remote from Manohar, drawn into expressing herself on canvas.


Destiny is capricious in what she chooses to give to some and withhold from others. The impassioned priest’s wife has, unfortunately, a fertile womb; Saroja and Sampathu gift each other a child, while Manohar must yearn for one.

When it comes to homes, Saroja’s living space morphs through the day, now shelter, now shop; Rajakumari, brought into the oldest trade in the world while very young, has a solid roof over her head, never mind that her window is “kerchief-sized”; and Tejaswini is the mistress of a large house with a garden, at the cost of having a daughter left paralysed due to her own husband’s administrations.

Saroja and Sampathu come together after each of them has faced tremendous danger on their own. If Manohar and Kripa are the normative couple, married in the proper way and then fully expected to procreate, Saroja and Sampathu are unusual in every way. One has lost a child, the other has gained one. One has lost a spouse, the other never had one. Even more unusual is their choice of a home, though like every Indian woman, Saroja dreams of owning a little piece of land.

“It is an orderly life, an almost good life with enough food, family, wholesome sex, kids to spank and cherish, earnings from the tea stall and mild flirtations with men who would like something more. Saroja yearns for a home with its own floor, its own roof and four strong walls. She longs for it and is jealous of every woman who can stand at her own doorway while cleaning rice or picking lice out of young white hair. Desire leads to desperation.”

Desires, normal and attainable, drive the actions of Saroja and Manohar, resulting in unforeseen and complicated outcomes. One might suppose that Rajakumari has earned some wisdom about the ways of the world having experienced its darker side, but what she has to offer through her commentary isn’t very much.

In the end, what powers the book is the gradual accumulation of detail, details about life in a small town, details that are of overwhelming importance to the characters, to their own experience of human life.

Kavery writes with understated humour about ordinary people in an ordinary town that does not even have a train passing through it. Pingakshipura, a place once known for its “eight varieties of paddy, four of mangoes and 10 types of banana” is now a “high-decibel, boom-boom town” with one extraordinary feature. Children here all have white hair.

“In 1996, the hair of little babies in this town started to turn white. Born with black hair, every one of them, but around the age of one or so they began to put out white hair. Now there isn’t a single child or teenager born among us who has a head of black hair.”

This is courtesy the pesticide produced by Sugandha Enterprises, whose greed and heedless expansion is to blame for spoiling local natural resources. However, this visual metaphor for the effect of ‘development’, white hair in the youngest generation, also sets up expectations of a greater element of magic realism in the book that are not met.

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