Characters that etch themselves on our minds reflect the late author's wealth of imagination.
Half-way though this strange book, I realised what was wrong: it was screaming to be re-woven into a screenplay for a movie with actors Madhavan and Vidya Balan in the lead roles. It's the same feeling one got on reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay — which, of course, was made into a movie. Sometimes, the scenes you're reading play out in your head and that's striking the mother-lode for both writer and audience, so it's all the more unsettling that The Wind and The Rain is not fluidly written. It does, though, have memorable characters and sets its milieu beautifully.
If you can overlook the fact that the dialogue seems to have been translated from Malayalam to English, you can get into the story of Maya and Roy who grow up together in a village in Kerala. The bounty of nature, the wonderful simplicity that life holds, the Malayalee sense of humour and the carnal underbelly of vaulting innocence makes a dip into the river Pampa, as much a character as anyone else here, refreshing.
What's more striking, especially for women circa 2011, is how strong the character of the village belle is. Even as a young girl, swimming, singing, doing the chores and living next door to the boy she adores, Maya will spit fire at anyone who crosses the line — or fight fire with fire when she sees Roy's eyes rove and bring it back to her in a deliciously comic bathing scene. Later, she battles even would-be husbands or lovers or that other staple of India: gross-out mothers-in-laws.
But this indomitable will goes for many of the other female characters, too. There is Sophie, the coffee shop owner's wife “who had youth not only on her side but lavished fetchingly over her entire person”; Santha, the maid, and Rani the elephant-girl, (even the bold, lusty married woman who will nonchalantly sleep with another man), both of whom embody the un-nerving tendency of sub-continental women to rule with an iron hand, never mind the velvet glove. In fiction, that's not a bad thing, giving you something to root for when sub-continental men display their tendency for emotional and physical abuse.
Not so our hero Roy, though. He is the stuff of every village belle's dreams. He has integrity and loyalty and steadfastness (this is the time for all us urban belles to look at our men and instantly go into a long-lasting depression) and is the means by which the author spins some of his best moments. There are two scenes that the movie director will hopefully pay special attention to: One is when Roy rides a rogue elephant, the other when he is (spoiler alert) coated in a disguise of turmeric and taking a hand in his beloved's misfortunes.
The childhood moments are captured so well that even if you did not grow up in Kerala but you are Indian, you will instantly recognise the agonies of the classroom, as when the teacher is likened to “Captain Cook because he had the knack of discovering children whose minds were uninhabited by answers”. Who can't recall waiting for the whistle of a cane if one answered a question wrong — such a traumatic event that it is never forgotten.
Speaking of elephants, Rani’s own Balan is as much of the Kerala landscape as the ubiquitous coconut tree and when he comes to Rani’s aid by bellowing as though “a hundred trumpets seemed to sing as one, concussing the air”, you acknowledge yet again how the characters here are not all human.
Unfortunately, the movie motif one recognises through the book concludes with a series of Hindi film-like coincidences at the end which is not winsomely introduced, and it's not a son who is miraculously found but a pachyderm.
I must draw the line at the quite horrendous cover design of The Wind and The Rain which, apart from the wrong typeface and the disproportionate placing of elements, gives no hint of the author's imagination, which is what makes the reading worth your while.
Mathew was 81 years old, and this was his first book. How ironic that there are thirtysomethings who write wonderfully — and give us no raw material to work with, or a single line or character to remember.