Among most English-language fiction set in ultra-modern cities has been a flurry of novels throbbing with stories of life in villages. Anusha Parthasarathy turns the pages of a few books that have dipped into a mosaic of socio-political situations, relationships, childhood and more…
Instead of cities with skyscrapers and coffee-vending machines, escalators and traffic jams, these stories are set in towns plush with green fields, where people wake up to the rooster’s call, ride on bullock carts and live in small homes that are big enough for everyone. And through their protagonists, the authors explore the socio-political situations of that village or town, the relationships that thrive there, the burning issue of caste, carefree childhoods and provide a glimpse of rustic Indian life. Amidst most English fiction set in urban areas and large metros, such books have been a breath of fresh air.
A clear picture
While a lot of these books, understandably, stem from memories or family stories, and are semi-autobiographical, the details are rich, lucid and a picture of the small town paints itself through the pages, as in The Toss Of A Lemon by Padma Viswanathan. The book was inspired by Viswanathan’s grandmother’s story. Set in Cholapatti, a small village on the fringes of Trichy, the book revolves around a Brahmin widow Sivakami and spans three generations. It not just explores the lives of Sivakami’s children and grandchildren, but also gives insight into the Brahmin quarter of Cholapatti, the ways of the Brahmins who lived there, and how the caste system is woven comfortably into the whole setting. Through Sivakami herself, the story explains the life of an orthodox widow who only does one uncharacteristic move: to live in her husband’s home even after his death.
Krishna Kumar Nair, head of Marketing and Merchandise, Westland, which published Viswanathan’s book, believes that these books are a product of memory. “Most of them would be reminiscences of one’s childhood and set in small towns and villages,” he says. “But it needn’t just be fiction. There are cookbooks too, such as A Sense For Spice by Tara Deshpande, which revolves around the history and cooking heritage of her native village Belgaum.”
While memory can also be attributed to publishing mogul David Davidar’s The House Of Blue Mangoes, it differs where he creates a world of fiction and uses memory as just a foundation. The story of the village of Chevathar and its raging caste politics during the time of the freedom struggle begins in 1899 and goes on till 1947. The story walks the reader through the lives of Solomon Durai and his family. “His book is a family saga that starts on the banks of the river and talks of life in a small town. The book is written for a city audience and tells them about South India, its customs and relationships. It is about a Nadar family, and a good example of fiction set in small town,” says Kamini Mahadevan, consulting editor, Penguin India.
Not falling into this category, and yet charming and light-hearted is British author Mike Stock’s debut novel White Man Falling. It looks at Mullaipuram (a small town near Madurai) and its whims through the eyes of an insider, where a girl wearing jeans could begin a family scandal and a ‘White man’ falling on someone is considered bad omen. Swaminathan, a policeman who has a stroke and is on a wheelchair is waiting to marry off his six daughters with ‘bankrupting dowries’ and does not know how. How he goes from being suicidal to becoming a swamiji, a man who walked with God, forms the plot. Mike cleverly weaves in a story of class, superstition and social customs into a delightfully funny novel.
Exploring new worlds
“There have always been such books in translations. One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan is set in rural Tiruchengode, and if you look across the country, Ravinder Singh sets his book in small towns too. Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee is set in the hinterland of Sikkim,” says Kamini. She explains that a rural setting is a context. “It allows you to explore new worlds. There are two levels of readers who identify with these books; ones that have moved to cities from small towns and those in cities who don’t know about that life.”
City-based poet and activist Meena Kandaswamy’s upcoming novel Gypsy Goddess is the story of a small town’s resistance to feudalism and untouchability. Set in Thanjavur of the 1960s, the book explores Communism with a fictional take on real events. “Thanjavur was a natural choice for me since my father is from there. He came to Chennai in 1977 and so, in a way, it is my hometown too — where my grandparents are buried,” says the author. In a feudal set-up and amidst peasants’ suffering, the Communist Party begins to gain traction and a small spark of defiance spreading from villager to villager. As communities across the region begin to take a stand, the landlords vow to break them. “I’m against ‘infantilisation’ of rural places or trying to depict them as charming or quaint. I think the politics from 1960s’ Thanjavur, for instance, is as nuanced and sophisticated as what’s going on today in any capital city,” says Meena. Gypsy Goddess will be out in April.