A family saga, sometimes entertaining, sometimes flagging in energy...
The author of Music Room, Namita Devidayal revisits readers with her second novel Aftertaste, a long engagement of a business family's deep obsession with wealth and abject genuflection in the presence of money and jewellery. The narrative then threads through a saga of resultant folly of greed and the associated toxins that set in with familial relations, where much is compromised ethically.
The central and recurring leitmotif in the story is money (at times tad overstated). “Money has a mind of its own….like a river it takes its own course. If you try and control it, at some point the bund breaks and the water flows where it wants to.” Aftertaste traces the saga of the Todarmal family's control and flow with the forces of money. Daddyji and Mummyji's lives alternately revel in the scent of wealth or grapple with the vicissitudes of dwindling fortunes. In one dark and down moment Mummyji strikes upon the idea of setting up a Mithai shop as a business venture. Their two sons Rajan Papa (the older, stodgy, feeble- willed) and Sunny (the younger impatient one) join the family trade. The daughters Suman (the beautiful, spoilt one) and Saroj (the younger, reticent one) feed off the family business in more ways than one.
It's a reflection into a tight circle of a money gharana where it is drilled in that it is “indeed money and not love that lies at the heart of a good bania gharana”.
The thin plot line is revealed, suggestively, in the early pages. There is a time line building up to Diwali and before it finally arrives in the book, the reader is able to fix the jigsaw pieces of the story board. There is little sense of pace and movement. The narrative leaves the fold of the plot and takes on the textures of an essay, a commentary, many a time. These self-contained pieces could read as text for serious research on socio- economic anthropology of a bania gharana. (Weighty paragraphs are devoted to the parallel economy of unaccounted wealth in the country.)
The author's voice resonates with conviction in certain distinct instances while describing Kalbadevi, the central business district of Bombay. Descriptions of Mithai and its manufacturing, the mythology behind the festival of Diwali, how the women characters launch private investment schemes from their household budgets, a fleeting reference to music and Dhondutai, the interiors of the family home Cozy Villa, the festering innocence of the grand children and their growing pains all add to the wealth of detail. It is in these instances that one can yield to the pure experience of reading Namita Devidyal's writerly musings.
If the central theme in the novel is money then the central character is Mummyji.
“Ah yes she had to prepare for the big Diwali dinner. She smiled inwardly for this was her real pleasure point – eating and feeding.”Apart from food in her role as mother head she fed her children on a constant diet of insecurities. Whether she was creating the latest sweets like Bournvita Burfi and Maggie Noodle Bhajia or manipulating her daughter's marriage, or heaping food delicacies on Rajan papa's palate while glossing over his money worries, or watching the debris pile up in her son's fight for control, the fiction tale of Mummyji's matriarchy holds on till the very end.
The writer intersperses wisdom and comic irreverence with matriarchy and motherhood. There are poignant impressions in the writing towards Mummyji's end where the realisation dawns on her that “she has placed in her children her own fears and insecurities and desires, turning them into craven calculating creatures. She had not helped them understand that as you die each breath becomes more valuable than a diamond”.
The rest of the characters in the pages don't form a firm alliance or bond….we at best get to unravel their first layer of complexity. The prose ensures a clinical distance. So we don't fully understand the helpless ineffectualness of Rajan papa, we don't get into the length of the drama of Sunny's mistress…. or the ache of Saroj's separation from her husband or Suman's oscillation between spiritualism and her coveting eye for her mother's safe and all that it holds. The characters don't get under our skin; their pain or magic does not totally become ours. If Music Room had inviting notes (even to the uninitiated) and left behind a tingling memory, Aftertaste depends on the reader's sense of ethics and morality when it comes to money.
Aftertaste; Namita Devidayal; Random House; Rs. 399