Quiet Lives

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Saraswati Park By Anjali Joseph, book reviewThere’s something Chekhovian about Saraswati Park, in its collection of small intimate details about life in Mumbai’s suburbs which is very different from the glitz and Page 3 electricity of Mumbai proper. It’s a novel about the everyday lives of small suburb people. Mohan Karekar, who every day goes to the post office to write letters for those who cannot do it for themselves, and his wife Lakshmi, who wakes every morning to the clattering of teacups put beside the bed by her husband.

Mohan, a character straight out of RK Narayan, has aspirations to become a writer one day and buys pirated books from the roadside hawkers, including a treatise on how to write. Lakshmi has nothing to do beyond sort out the household and, for company and her daily outing, go to the temple in the afternoon. As the couple’s children have left for America they have nothing to focus on but their own small preoccupations.

Into their life comes their 19 year old nephew Ashish, an English literature student, who is repeating his year in college. Ashish’s arrival gives Lakshmi and Mohan an outlet for their affections. While Ashish reciprocates, he is more concerned with his emotional life, with sexual awakening, a “rich, thoughtless” first love and love on the rebound with his English tutor.

As a study of young Indian youth, Ashish’s vagueness about his elders and his own involvement with self are well observed, as is Ashish’s discovery of his own sexuality. Joseph has a sense of comedy and a lightness of touch which can also be seen in some of Mohan and Lakshmi’s marital encounters.

“Joseph has a sense of comedy and a lightness of touch…”

Anjali Joseph’s main strength is her sentence power, which emerges in descriptions like that of a teacher arriving for class in a “predictable mauve cloud of bad sari, bad hair, bad glasses and bad mood”. Or in her pictures of sunset in the evening and Lakshmi’s interactions with the man who comes to collect the garbage. Occasionally, however, the flights of poetry do fly out of control as in sentences like “Later, a shadow leaf would seemingly tear itself out of the tree and fly up, into the sunlit sky” which seem to be striving more for effect than anything else.

Joseph lovingly lists train routes and roads as the characters journey backwards and forwards across the length and breadth of Mumbai and mercifully, she refrains from focussing on the poverty of the city as a lot of Indian writers in English do. There are minutely observed details like the sirens of cars when they back, or the owl nesting in a housing colony – though occasionally, as in the case of golden eagles spotted at sunset, one wishes some reality checks had happened. There are also some inexplicable things like Mohan’s discovery of a bundle of letters tied in silk ribbon in his brother Satish’s flat – while the letters are mentioned, they play no other role than to flesh out Satish’s life.

Nothing very dramatic happens in the novel – drama would probably spoil the subtlety – and Ashish’s way out of suburbia is very traditional and comes a little too pat as does the reward that Mohan finally receives for his attempts at writing. One could have asked for a slower, better planned ending. What Saraswati Park does do, however, is provide a vivid word picture of life in Mumbai and Joseph manages to keep her reader engrossed in events which are unimportant in themselves, over a year of their lives.


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Saraswati Park
by Anjali Joseph

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Written by Anjana Basu