“So perhaps there are no phantom pains after all; perhaps all pain is real; perhaps each long-ago blow lives on into eternity in some different permutation and shape; perhaps the body is this hypersensitive, revengeful entity, a ledger book, a warehouse of remembered slights and cruelties.”
There are few novels from which the sights, sound and smells come alive until they dance before your eyes and mingle with all your senses, this novel achieves that. It is reminiscent of the narrative style of novelist Rohinon Mistry and the similar place setting (Bombay a.k.a. Mumbai) and the description of the fast-reducing Parsi community adds to the resemblance amongst the authors.
The novel describes the intertwined lives of Sera, a Parsi woman for whom Bhima is a house-help. Their involvement spans decades and creates a delicate web of relationships amongst both families, until finally the web is broken. The subplots describe Sera’s unhappy marriage and the cruelties of her evil mother-in-law and her husband Feroz who is violent with her. She also has a daughter Dinaz and her husnabd Viraf who is her redemption for all her life’s miseries. Bhima lives alone with her seventeen and pregnant granddaughter, her husband having abandoned her with her son Amit. Her daughter is left behind with her who eventually dies of AIDS like her husband.
Though the narrative moves between the lives of the two characters Sera and Bhima, it is Bhima who is the undoubted hero of this novel and one can see in Bhima the many women in the city who work like her with blinding honesty and to whom life has been anything but fair. The author exalts the virtues of those living in the slums and braving unimaginable tragedies with gusto, through the experiences of Bhima and her family.
This novel like every good novel holds the reader’s hand and skilfully takes the reader through past experiences that are best forgotten. It brings back memories one has spent years forgetting and making our peace with and leaves your old wounds exposed and throbbing as if brand new.
Survival in Bhima’s case is more tragedy than miracle and the whole ethos of this theme reminded me of a poem by Vikram Seth:
How rarely all these few years, as work keeps us aloof,
Or fares, or one thing or another,
Have we had days to spend under our parents’ roof:
Myself my sister, and my brother.
All five of us will die; to reckon from the past
This flesh and blood is unforgiving.
What’s hard is that just one of us will be the last
To bear it all and go on living.
The descriptions of life in the city, especially the slums is disturbingly evocative and for me who has lived and experienced these sights and sounds, I must say it is a near perfect rendering of the madness that is Mumbai city. The relationships depicted are ones I could easily recognize as I looked around, the cruel mother-in-law with the educated yet helpless daughter-in-law, the deep bond between master and servant made of equal parts love and loathing.
The deftness with which the author describes the experiences of age is commendable, she elicits the fatigue of old age just as well as the brazenness of adolescence and the promise of youth.
However, the author seemed rather uncomfortable exploring sexual incidents and one could feel a sense of restraint in her descriptions which were sexual in nature. Another let down was the blurb of the plot at the back of the book was just unable to do justice to the intensity and depth of the actual plot.
The author does often get carried away with clichés and stereotypes but the novel is a realistic description of the class system in modern India.
I read the book in the span of three days and I felt rather sad as I came towards the end of the novel, and this quote from the book sums it up neatly for me:
“You felt a deep sorrow, the kind of melancholy you feel when you’re in a beautiful place and the sun is going down”