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Updated: December 3, 2011 19:22 IST

Dinnertime thrills

Kankana Basu
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Table for Four, K. Srilata, Penguin Books India, Rs. 250.
Table for Four, K. Srilata, Penguin Books India, Rs. 250.

An engaging psychological-thriller that goes back and forth in time, the book is a refreshing read.Kankana Basu

There are poets who are content to exist in the matrix of poetry for an entire lifetime and novelists who prefer writing the long form while giving vent to their imagination. And then there are those who dare to do a trapeze act, swinging from one form of expression to the other and end up doing it with a certain degree of finesse. Noted poet K. Srilata, with her latest novel Table for Four, proves to be the perfect candidate for this last group. With a vast body of writing behind her, the author now returns with a slim engaging novel that by its very engaging nature, seems to defy compartmentalisation.

Fiction enthusiasts will recall Table for Four making ripples a couple of years back when it was long listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, after which the manuscript inexplicably disappeared (like most long listed books). It now resurfaces in its crisply edited, hugely readable avatar giving the psychological-thriller genre a whole new meaning.

Narrated in the voice of Maya, the novel spins around the characters of Derek, Sandra, Maya and Uncle Prithvi. Maya, a graduation student studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is desperately on the look out for accommodation when she spots a poster offering a room with a view. A meeting with the prospective landlord, a genial dwarfish man of Indian origin, and a quick tour of the house results in Maya settling for the offered room almost instantaneously. On moving in, she meets her fellow boarders, the ever spiffily-dressed Orkut obsessed Sandra (also hailing from Madras, like Maya) and war correspondent Derek. The stage thus set for drama is reminiscent of the traditional form of murder mysteries favored by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Delano Ames (as a matter of fact there is a mention of the first author at the beginning of the novel). But just as the reader is rubbing his hands in glee, anticipating a couple of corpses and some good old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger stuff, the plot veers off unexpectedly into dark, convoluted terrain, delving deep into the suppressed desires and guilty secrets of all four.

Shifting patterns

The three years of graduation pass with remarkable speed for Maya and what is even more remarkable is that she hardly encounters her landlord, Uncle Prithvi, in this period (though he lives upstairs in the same house). Instead, the quirky old man, a cross between Hercule Poirot and the mysterious Mr. Quin, prefers to leave post-it notes by way of communication. The relationships between the three boarders shift pattern and equations constantly although the author refrains from dwelling too long and too deeply on these.

It is on the last evening before Maya departs for her hometown Madras and the other two also disperse that Uncle Prithvi invites them for a farewell dinner. The table is set for four. The host conversationally mentions that his strangely-shaped dining table possesses special powers and invites his boarders to reveal their innermost stories this night. And thus tumble forth an extraordinary series of disturbing secrets long suppressed in each heart. One of the guests does not turn up for dinner at all, yet the story of his life gets through and is probably the most touching of the four.

K. Srilata writes a crisp self-assured hand, refusing to digress into unnecessary detailing or embroider superfluous frills into the prose to add thickness to this slim work of fiction. And thereby, succeeds in keeping the tempo as taut as a bow-string all through. Instead, the author chooses to play on the psychological intricacies of her characters and creates a subterranean feeling of menace that keeps the reader glued to the book. Moving back and forth in time and true to the plot at all times, the author cunningly plans her surprises, springing them on her unsuspecting reader and managing to disconcert even the most hardened expert of suspense novels. Maya, Sandra, Derek and Uncle Prithvi are sketched with the bold brush strokes of a master painter and this lends them an impressionistic fuzzy-edged ambiguity that is much more intriguing than any clear-cut definitions of character.

Table for Four is a refreshing read, though vaguely disturbing at the subconscious level. An uncluttered, well-crafted psychological thriller that is somewhat let down by an indifferent cover. Undulating lines in primary colours are better suited for the cover of an academic text-book rather than an accomplished work of fiction. Table for Four could have done with a cover that matched its accomplished text — an impressionistic work of art done by the likes of a Hebbar, a Van Gogh, or a Monet, perhaps…?

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