The Hero’s Walk

In a few hours that heat would hang over the town in long, wet sheets, puddled behind peoples’ knees, in their armpits and in the hollows of their necks, and drip down their foreheads. Sweaty thighs would stick to chairs and make rude sucking sounds when contact was broken. Only idiots ventured out to work and, once there, sat stunned and idle at their desks because the power had gone off and the ceiling fans were still.

 

 

It is Anita Rau Badami’s second novel, the winner of the 2000 Commonwealth prize for fiction. Disappointment hangs over the characters like heat that chokes the small town of Toturpuram. It’s so oppressive that only something as brutal as a monsoon can free it. Sripathi Rao is 57, worked hard all his life to do his duty and has very little to show for it. He shares his deteriorating ancestral home with his wife Nirmala, his activist son Arun, his unmarried sister Putti, and cantankerous Ammayya, whose heart was “full of the rage she had accumulated over sixty of her eighty years of existence.”

Sripathi and Nirmala, over the many years of their co-habitation are dulled to mostly friendly bickering. Arun is a continual disappointment to his father, for at 28, rather than engaging in a profession and marrying well, he lives a “hermit-like” existence. Working on a doctorate while engaging in protests and other things that are entirely mysterious to his father.

“What are you involved in now? Henh? Some other saving-the-world project? Why are you wasting your time trying to be a big hero instead of getting a job? Here I am, head full of grey hair, going to work everyday like an ox, and my son sits at home dreaming useless dreams.”

Putti is sweet, loving and badly misused by her mother. At 42, she laments the many suitors that have approached her mother and her brother over the years only to be dismissed on one pretext or another by Ammayya, who wants only to keep her daughter with her until she dies.

Into this quietly desperate family portrait, desolation is dropped. Maya, the beloved and brilliant daughter who went away to the United States, and her foreigner husband are killed in a car accident in distant Canada. In a desperate attempt to convince his daughter to abort what he sees as a social and spiritual suicide mission, Sripathi – in flashback – tells his daughter that if she insists on marrying the foreigner, she will never again be welcome in her father’s house. “If you persist on doing this foolish thing,” he shouts into the phone long distance, “never show your face in this house again. Never.” But never is a long time. Nine years later, Maya and her foreign husband are dead. Their 7-year-old daughter Nandana is alive and her grandfather takes her from Vancouver to a new life in India.

Although the story is compelling, Badami succeeds even more in her lush evocations of Indian life. She finds a wicked absurdity in the traditions of India, though the comedy masks larger, much more pervasive social conflicts. Relating the story of Sripathi’s birth and his parents’ high expectations of him, Badami tells of the visit of the astrologer whose predictions of grandeur Indian parents so desperately cling to

“He shuffled his feet and became ingratiating – a signal for his clients to pay him for his services. The priest found it demeaning to ask for money for himself … After all, he was a Brahmin, not a trader-caste fellow who had no shame asking for this and that.”

The India Badami describes is one in which anything can happen. A hospital stay results in missing organs. Apartment buildings won’t have an elevator because the power likely won’t be on when needed anyway. Politicians are hand in glove with the mafia, if not ex-gangsters. They commision 60-feet hoardings of themselves and will not pay the impoverished artist who paints them. Cows graze in people’s front yards. Old men show their genitals to passing children. Retrieving your bike from a parking space involves having to bribe a cop. There is humor in the descriptions and a clear ring of authenticity. India is vital, recognizable, sad, funny, dramatic and absorbing, without Bollywood melodrama or romanticized exoticism.

Badami has a good ear for local rhythms and dialectal variations. A personal laugh-out-loud favorite from the book is when Sripathi absconds from work and bumps into a colleague at the movies:

“Blood Pressure, eh?” smirked Shyamsundar. “And after watching this sex bomb going tingi-tingi, finished, your blood-pressure machine will burst itself!” He jabbed an elbow into Sripathi and continued. “And thunder-thighs Madhuri, giving all those kissies to hero with her wet sari sticking everywhere… Ayyo! Where will your blood-pressure be, saar?”

“The whole business of living, I think, is an act of heroism,” says Anita Rau Badami, and there are many acts of heroism. Nirmala’s helping Putti to marry Gopala, the milkman’s son. Arun’s social activism in the face of ridicule from his father and opposition from the authorities and the local goondas. Maya’s marriage to a foreigner, without a caste or station. Putti’s dutiful devotion to her mother. Nandana’s silent struggle to overcome her trauma, and struggle to adjust in an completely incomprehensible environment. Sripathi himself.  And even the hateful and termagent Ammaya’s pride is in the end, cast as heroic, when secret of the jewelry she has clung on to is revealed as fake.  in Ultimately, they find heroism in small gestures and in their own courage to move on, and let go of their regret.

 

 

Advertisements

3 Responses to “The Hero’s Walk”

  1. Wow! An alluring review and another book added to my to-read list. Love the local flavor and imagery added by the use of words like ‘henh’ and ‘ayyo’ :-).

  2. :)) i know what you mean, indeed i do. it’s particularly hilarious to encounter “tingi-tingi” in print.

  3. This book is awesome. I’ve read a couple of her other books and they are reallly good too. People should really read this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: