THE STRIKE: Anand Mahadevan; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 299.
Like many first novels, this too is a growing up story, seemingly autobiographical, and like many NRI first novels the references to grandparents and great-aunts get so complicated that for ready reference, a family tree has to be provided. Add to that a background of public events to situate the personal narrative in contemporary Indian history, and you have the rough structure of The Strike.
Having said that, I have to add that despite this familiar formula, Anand Mahadevan’s novel is refreshingly different in several ways. First of all it is a railway novel — beginning and ending with a boy’s fascination with trains and engines, which in the latter half of the novel gives the plot a totally unexpected jolt.
Although trains have been such a major part of Indian life, I do not remember reading a novel that uses it as a unifying motif. Secondly, Hari, who is seven years old at the beginning of the novel and 12 when it ends, lives in a railway colony in Nagpur where children of Bengali, Gujarati, and Tamil families grow up together, but during summer vacations they go to their grandparents and get exposed to regional cultures. This plural upbringing is very much part of a section of middle-class India but not many writers attempt to convey this interweaving.
Mahadevan manages to capture the cross-currents of languages and life-styles — though not without occasional self-consciousness. Hari’s succumbing to the temptation of tasting fish-fry in a Mukherjee household could have been a comic episode if it did not swell into a major crisis in his Iyer family. The accidental death of his grandmother on the same day turns his fish-eating into a traumatic experience. Hari is fluent in Hindi, but because he is heard speaking this alien language, anti-Hindi graffiti appear on the walls of his grandfather’s house in Chennai. Hari who does not know the legends of Tamil culture is introduced to the story of Kannagi and her anklet by a fellow passenger on a long train journey.
This train companionship — lasting longer than usual because at some point the wide-spread strike following MGR’s death stalls the train indefinitely — is described interminably for some 100 pages — giving the writer a chance to dwell leisurely on passengers from Punjab to Kerala and the relationships they forge during the journey. Presumably this slow build-up is intended to make the sudden climax of the journey more disturbing.
I will refrain from commenting on the climax or the uneasy ethical implications of the way the problem is resolved because it will be unfair to reveal the end. It might spoil the novel for those who have not read it yet.
Although most of the events are narrated from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, the novel does not miss out on the routine dose of the adi rasa — ranging from pre-pubescent stirrings of sexuality, a hesitant awareness of the boy’s homo-erotic desire to a sex-act inside a train toilet as reported by a hijra. Hari makes friends with this hijra called Radha whose character — raunchy and gregarious — is elaborately developed with explanatory details.
One wonders if this has anything to do with the fact that before the Penguin reprint, the book was first published in Canada by TSAR Publications which provide space for multi-cultural themes.
Many young writers who write their first novels quietly, away from public gaze, during stolen moments between an office job and running a household, will be envious of this author’s good luck in getting funding from two sources to complete this book — Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council.
The writer has also benefited from two creative writing courses in the University of Toronto and Humber College. His mentor in one of the courses — M.S. Vasanji — endorses the book on the cover describing it as “a wonderfully accomplished debut.”
Anand Mahadevan evidently has the talent for telling a story and making it vivid with observed details. Hopefully in his second novel he will go beyond the ‘craft’ learnt in the writing courses to chart out in an untrodden path.