A Tale of Two Indians

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A Tale of Two Indians - Maharshi Patel, book reviewMaharshi Patel is a well-to-do student attending a top US university and spoilt by his successful oncologist father and his doting mother. He is arrogant, selfish and self-indulgent. He likes fast cars and expensive watches not because they’re fast or they tell the time better but because they tell everyone around him just how wonderful his life is. There’s no point being a success if the world can’t SEE how fabulous your life is, after all. When a series of deaths amongst family and friends sends his privileged lifestyle off its axis, Maharshi has a breakdown, fails at his studies and his father threatens to cut him off financially. It’s taken him a while but the realisation dawns that he can’t take his life of privilege for granted. In search of an escape from the life that’s spiralling out of control, he heads to India to spend time with his paternal grandfather in search of truths about himself, his father and his father’s father.

Bhogi Patel is Maharshi’s grandfather and A Tale of Two Indians is much more his story than his grandson’s – a sort of ‘Tale of One Indian…….and a little bit about his grandson’. Despite Maharshi being born in India, he’s been brought up in Europe and the USA and long ago lost any sense of connection to his place of birth. By contrast, Bhogi has spent his whole life in India and we soon learn that it’s not been an easy life. As Maharshi uses the book to tell us about Bhogi’s life, it’s not hard for us to see the stark contrasts between a life of privilege in the USA and a more modest and much harder life in India.

Almost everyone Bhogi loves seems to have been doomed to die and at an early age he starts to learn the words of the cremation ceremony which he will hear again and again as one after another the deaths happen around him. An infant brother dies, he loses his mother, there’s suicide, the horrors of Partition, the abortion of a child, bullying, marital breakdown and all manner of disasters that dog Bhogi’s life but he takes it all on the chin – perhaps at times a little TOO resignedly. Bhogi’s is a life that could have been told as one of unremitting misery but he’s a man who gets knocked back and then gets up again time after time after time. His is an indomitable spirit born out of suffering but touched with joy. He’s a remarkable man with an inspirational line in resilience and it’s soon apparent that he has many lessons to teach his grandson. I plodded patiently along with Bhogi as his life seemed to move from one disaster to the next and eventually loved the end of the book where we see him finally take all the bad he’s seen and turn it into something positive for those around him. Whether I needed quite so much doom and gloom first in order to get the message across is open for debate.

Undoubtedly there are few greater gifts than a grandparent who lives long enough to pass on their wisdom and few things rarer than a grandchild ready to listen and learn. Without his breakdown to clear the path back to his grandfather, Maharshi would never have freed up the time in his superficially wonderful life to go and learn those lessons. The warmth and admiration in which Maharshi holds his grandfather is touching and at times quite moving but it’s also sad that it took such trauma to bring the two men together. I often wish I’d asked my own grandfather more about his younger days instead of just switching off every time granddad started ‘banging on about the war again’. There are none so deaf as those who can’t be bothered to listen.

A Tale of Two Indians was written primarily for the Indian market and published there last summer by a local publisher although it can now be found in the USA or UK from Amazon and other suppliers. I suspect that there’s a market in India for the “It’s not all wonderful in the USA” theme and in the USA for the “Ancient wisdom of the homeland” message amongst the immigrant community in the USA. I’m puzzled that a book which is so clearly autobiographical bears the classification ‘FICTION’ on the back of my copy. The price label from the very wonderful Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai where I bought it classifies it as ‘Non-Fi’ – so somebody must us be right and somebody must be wrong. I’m not just puzzled – I’m also a bit miffed. Is it fiction or not? Should a book that sets out to share such ‘truths’ about human suffering and human behaviour be ambiguous on this matter. Somehow it seems very important to know one way or the other. If it’s ‘based on’ the life of Bhogi and Maharshi but is actually fiction, then I’m left needing to know which bits are real and which are modified. If it’s fiction then why not change the names? Perhaps it’s just a mistake from the publisher but I am unsettled by it.

Aside from a tiny bit about himself at the beginning and end of the book, Maharshi focuses all his efforts in telling us about his grandfather and – to my eyes at least – rather avoiding the issues of his own breakdown and eventual rebirth as a better person. The grandfather’s story seems to be a way in which he’s able to hide his own problems and I would have preferred to read a more balanced account of the two lives and perhaps more analysis of what made the two men who they becamse. We’re left to identify the lessons of his grandfather’s life and look for their impact on the younger man and it’s not always particularly subtle.

As a tribute to an ordinary man – an ‘everyman’ if you like – and an account of an ordinary life in all its unordinary dimensions, A Tale of Two Indians is a pleasant little morality tale. As a work of fiction or truly a story of TWO men, it’s lacking something. I applaud Maharshi Patel for the dedication needed to tell his grandfather’s story, but I won’t expect to see further books from him.

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Tale of Two Indians, A
by Maharshi Patel

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Written by koshkha