Desire for transcedence

Desire for transcedence

Saraswati Park
Anjali Joseph
Harper Collins,
2010, pp 261,
Rs 399


We could even date it, if we wanted, from the trinkets sold on the local trains, as the city of three or four years ago. More significantly, Saraswati Park captures the experience of living in Mumbai.

Here, for example, is the annual trick of seasons that anyone who has lived there would identify with: “Every year when the rains came it was like returning to a well-known place after a long journey. The mind mercifully blocked out the recollection of how it really was: the sodden, dark days, roads full of water, the dirt; instead, as the summer heat built up, one waited impatiently for the rains, when, it seemed, new life would begin.”

The novel revolves around the internal lives of three middle-class residents of a suburban neighbourhood called Saraswati Park: Mohan Karekar, who works outside the GPO as a letter writer while dreaming of becoming a writer of fiction; his wife, Lakshmi, worn down from a life of domestic drudgery; and Mohan’s 19-year-old nephew Ashish, who is staying with them while he repeats a year of college and tentatively explores his attraction towards other men.

Joseph is very good with details — the reflexive patting of one’s pockets to ensure its contents, the visit to the temple with one eye on footwear left in a corner, the ceiling fan that turns “frenetically in the early morning high voltage”— and she accumulates them in poised, precise prose to animate the quotidian. The familiar is constantly renewed in Joseph’s writing, and this combined with a number of interesting incidental characters keeps the novel engaging despite its minimal plot.

Mohan could not go to college because he had to work after his father died. Still, he has dreams of being a writer and he movingly teaches himself literature from the notes in the margins of second-hand books. He is almost 60 before he gathers the confidence to start writing short stories. And when he does start writing, it is in English. It is curious that Mohan seems not to have tried to write earlier and in his own tongue, Marathi.

Especially so since he grew up during the post-Independence years in Dadar, a stronghold of Marathi culture. We see Mohan read Henry James and Mark Twain, and though we are told his bookshelf contains Marathi books, there isn’t a single mention of a Marathi play, film or book that he might have read or been influenced by.

When Mohan has an epiphany about his domestic situation, it is through reading Mark Twain’s essay in defense of Shelley’s wife. This is plausible, but feels needlessly roundabout. Could the cultural resources available to Mohan really have let him down so badly?

Lakshmi and Mohan come across astrangely detached from their three children, who now live outside Mumbai. There is almost no mention of the children, and certainly none of the planning for their futures that keeps so many middle-class parents occupied. Nor do we hear about Lakshmi being part of any wider community in Saraswati Park.

The “vast spaces of boredom”, the sense of ennui that the novel describes seem almost wilful, with the characters resembling affluent, deracinated people who have been dropped into a middle-class setting where they find themselves unmoored. But whatever their mode of arrival, the way beyond, Saraswati Park seems to say, is through learning, education, introspection, and a tenacious desire for transcendence.

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