Squash and heartache | Review of Booker-shortlisted ‘Western Lane’ by Chetna Maroo

The debutant novelist explores the world of adolescence and grief through the story of an Indian family in Britain

Updated - November 20, 2023 09:58 am IST

Published - September 20, 2023 10:48 pm IST

The young protagonist finds refuge in the game of squash that, in some ways, becomes a metaphor for her life.

The young protagonist finds refuge in the game of squash that, in some ways, becomes a metaphor for her life. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

At the end of the mourning period for his wife, 11-year-old Gopi’s father — in anticipation of the “difficult time” he would have raising three daughters — is persuaded that what the girls need is a disciplined and enduring surrogate. “I want you to become interested in something you can do your whole life,” he tells them. 

The girls had played squash recreationally ever since they were old enough to hold racquets, but what Gopi’s father has in mind is a demanding and laborious regimen — pre-school, after-school and weekends — at Western Lane, with its glass-backed squash courts that can be booked in advance. Pa watches them as they ghost (play the game without the ball), takes notes, issues instructions from the balcony and talks wistfully about the Pakistani great Jahangir Khan, the greatest member of the so-called Khan dynasty that hegemonises the game. 

The relentless demands of the regimen and the pressure of responsibilities in a motherless household in Edinburgh lead Gopi’s sisters Mona and Khush to give up the game. “We’re not Khans,” Mona quietly responds after her father’s sermon about the need to have something and address yourself to it. But Gopi, who constantly improves, persists, finding refuge in a game that in some ways is a metaphor for her life, challenging her to find the shots and make the space she needs.

Coming-of-age novel

Squash opens new spaces for the entire family. It opens her up to Ged, a hitting partner, a crush, who makes her feel they are making something together on court, something beyond sight and touch. “A clean hit can stop time. Sometimes it can feel like the only peace there is.” Her father triggers an undercurrent of unease within the family and beyond after he begins having cigarette breaks and conversations with Ged’s mother, who works at the bar in Western Lane. And there is another fragmentary unfinished attachment — in this coming-of-age novel — between Mona and Shaan, the nephew of Maqsud, who encourages Gopi to take part in a squash tournament at Durham and Cleveland.

Author Chetna Maroo

Author Chetna Maroo | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

Even so, squash, with its risks and opportunities, cannot suppress the presence of their dead mother, who hovers over the narrative in the form of memory, grief, absence and make-believe conversations. It exercises a gentle, almost-melancholic, restraint on the three sisters, and especially on Pa, who is wedded to his loss. “We began to recognise Ma’s presence in our house, not through any experience of her — there was no sound, or touch of change in the air — but through the quality of Pa’s attention. His eyes were bright. He would look at things and we would know his attention was on her, that he was listening to her.”

In a soft and unobtrusive way, author Chetna Maroo explores the world of adolescence and grief in a manner that cleverly illuminates the inner lives of the sisters and their family. Like all good writers, she attempts to seek meaning in discontinuities and silences. But here and there, her debut novella, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is marked by a lack of direction, with passages where the prose seems too purposefully restrained, almost too shackled, to convey the feelings she herself seeks to evoke. There is real talent here, of that there is no doubt; and one can’t help thinking there is another, even better, novel waiting to emerge from Maroo’s pen.

Western Lane
Chetna Maroo

The reviewer teaches philosophy at Krea University and is the former editor of ‘The Hindu’.

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