Does Saraswati Park do justice to the multi-dimensional city that is Mumbai?
Anjali Joseph has been listed as one of the top 20 writers in Britain below the age of 40. Her book, Saraswati Park, has been collecting astonishingly favourable reviews, as being ‘beautifully rendered', ‘impressively assured', ‘unhurried gossamer prose' that is written with ‘wit and delicacy' and much more that is laudatory, flattering and so much else that it seems like a serious case of severe hyperbole rather than genuine critique. To some extent, this is indeed deserved, since the writing is polished, crafted, with flowing paragraphs and some interesting turns of phrase. But where it hits a roadblock, for me at least, as reader, reviewer, is the story itself.
Saraswati Park is about a man and his family who live in Saraswati Park, a housing ‘society', as it is called in Mumbai, a Harbour Line ride away in the suburbs. It is a small bubble of slow calm, as many of these places still can be in the metropolis, where neighbours become family and the troubles of one are shared by all those who exist closely around them. Many of these matters are never acknowledged aloud, but are known and sympathised with, often discussed over the dining table around the high-low din of prime time soaps and mulled over through the afternoon episodes. It is the women who are keepers of all secrets, who have the discretion of a spy with the intuition of a fisherwoman. Even in the thick of the hustle and hurry world that is the city, in the very centre of all the activity, outside one of the busiest commuter stations in the world, there is a tiny oasis where time, like the cliché has it, seems to have stopped, or slowed down enough to be caught in a long time ago. Just outside the General Post Office, close to where the hordes pour out of VT station, as it is still fondly known, under a tree on a small traffic island sit eight or nine letter writers. They do write the occasional letter, but are more occupied, when they are, with packing small parcels, filling in forms for job applicants, helping sex workers send money home to the village, advising folk on all things postal and perhaps occasionally playing counsellor, psychiatrist and mentor.
Mohan Karekar is one such gentleman, who lives his life in a very understated manner. What gets him excited is books; he dreams of one day writing his own, and scribbles possible plot lines and incidents in the margins of the books he buys from the constantly endangered breed of pavement booksellers. His life at home is mundane, everyday, but in quiet crisis, with his wife not happy but not especially unhappy either, not completely accepting that reality but trying to escape it in her own quiet way. His nephew, who comes to stay and study, is gay, but manages to hide it, or so he believes, from everyone who actually knows but is tactful enough to be silent.
In the telling of the story, there are some issues that a reader, especially a Mumbaikar with a certain love for the city, will balk at. Why does Mohan, also a Mumbaikar, work as a letter-writer, even though he was not able to go to college after his father's business went bust? And if this is all he does, and does not use the money his daughter in America sends him, how does he maintain his standard of living? According to Joseph, who says that “essentially the family is not moneyed, though his children are doing really well,” it is how the story goes.
“There are just a lot of potential contradictions involved in that very wide description of being middle class – it could mean people who go out and spend a lot of money shopping on weekends, or it could mean people who are really working hard to pay their children's school fees. This is just one of the things it does mean. I began to really like the idea of this person who is not unemotional, it is not that he does not care about his own family and cares about other people's, but at the same time there is this intrinsic detachment. And also he is not a go getter, the new driving Bombay.”
This is a very polite book, one that skims the surface of a vibrant, multidimensional, bustling metropolis, never getting too deep into uncomfortable reality or even capturing it in words. An easy pleasant read, but not a particularly memorable one.
Saraswathi Park; Anjali Joseph; Harper Collins, Rs.399