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In the shade of the banyan tree
on 12 July 2010
Anjali Joseph was listed in the Telegraph recently as one of 'Twenty Writers Under 40' to look out for. This was notable as the list was published before this, her debut novel, was. Joseph might be described as a writer with pedigree: she read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, has taught at the Sorbonne and written for The Times of India as well as being a commissioning editor for Elle in the same country. I mention all of this because I always wonder what helps writers whose books are yet to be published get onto lists of this sort. Is the book really so amazing that the few who can have read it have already created the buzz or with that kind of background is it expected that a writer like Joseph is bound to have a bright future? After reading her solid début it may be worth noting that part of the reason for her inclusion on that list was their 'expectation that these writers have their best work ahead of them'
Joseph's novel is very much a portrait of the 'new India' focusing on a middle-class family in Bombay. Mohan is a letter-writer, a profession which is dying out. From his seat under some tarpaulin near the GPO he sits and writes missives for those who are illiterate, anything from heartfelt letters to the completion of bureaucratic forms. Joseph soon conjures the bustling and colourful street scene that is his daily existence.
"For a while he sat and watched the world, framed at the upper edge by the fringe of the tarpaulin - hairy bits of rope and a jagged piece of packing plastic, once transparent, now grey, hung down. Beyond this, all around the letter writers, life persisted at its noisiest. A fleet of cockroach-like taxis in black and yellow livery waited at the junction outside the GPO. When the lights changed they all, honking, took the u-turn. A man on a cycle passed; he carried a tangle of enormous red ledgers, each wrapped in plastic, atop his head. The gold on their spines flashed in the sun."
He is also an avid buyer of second-hand books, particularly those that contain marginalia, and deep within himself is an urge to be a writer himself of something far more creative. That urge is deeply hidden however and even his passion for books is frustrated by the closure of his favourite second-hand book market. His wife Lakshmi is frustrated by her domestic station and the way in which the simple daily living of their married life has clearly taken her and her husband far away from what they had enjoyed together in the first place. Joseph again provides a suitably domestic image to encapsulate all of those frustrations.
"Four of Mohan's shirts, collected this morning from the ironing boys, lay on the bed. She looked at them in exasperation. It was still there, the mild ring of dirt inside his collars, like a smudged pencil line. It wasn't his fault; nothing could be done. She had scrubbed at some of them to remove the mark, but it had been the collar, not the stain, that had begun to despair and fray. It was in these things, which didn't talk or, strictly speaking, have lives, that her days played out: her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct that any other interaction these days."
So both Mohan and Lakshmi have seen their lives slowly slide away from their promise and it will take a couple of events to shake things up. First of all comes the arrival of nephew Ashish. Forced to repeat his final year of college after falling foul of the attendance record Ashish is nineteen years of age and a potent mix of developing sexuality and approaching manhood. Whilst the home of his aunt and uncle is supposed to provide the kind of solace and support to help him complete his studies he finds himself trusted to a certain extent and left to get on with his own studies whilst Mohan and Lakshmi deal with their own challenges. What he does in fact is embark on a couple of troubled relationships, firstly with a wealthy fellow student and then with a tutor. Ashish seems at first as though he will be the sub-plot of this novel but in fact he comes to dominate the storyline. Personally I thought this was a shame as I was far more interested in Mohan, his writing and the troubles of making a marriage work. Ashish doesn't seem to learn much from his escapades and is as incapable of dealing with the fallout from latter affair as he was from the first. That kind of naivety is far less engaging than the subtle ways in which Mohan seeks to reconnect with his daily life and realise something more of his creative impulses. Lakshmi too, as she deals with family crisis in one form or another is a sensitively realised character. Joseph manages to create a vivid picture of city life in Bombay without resorting to the kinds of exotic clichés that I am always wary of in fiction from the Indian sub-continent and beyond. She does this mainly with an un-showy display of well rendered detail and also the way she uses the shifting seasons, the changing rhythms and the various locations of the novel to keep it progressing forwards. That's why I called it a solid début. I enjoyed it without being blown away which seems entirely in keeping with what that list was supposed to be highlighting. Joseph is a writer of potential and it will be interesting to see what she does next (Her next novel, set in London, Paris and Bombay will look at the way your twenties can challenge the morals and sense of self you have developed, the journey into the world and back into yourself).