Quirky and lilting, suffused with gentle sadness and questions about the world, this first novel is at once Nitya’s story of life around him as he goes from childhood to middle age, and is also a philosophical treatise on the whys and wherefores of life.
Growing up in a matrilineal family in Kerala, Nitya is according to his mother a “Lone Monkey” which makes him an observer of life and the people around him. It is the story of the family established by “Blathy” (for Vilayati) his great grandfather who built the house called Suvastu in the shade of a raintree , on the banks of a river in Kerala and wrote articles in English against the caste system. It begins with the lives and politics of the “Ammalkans”, Nitya’s mother’s sisters which forms the starting point and backdrop for a moving tale of India in the early years of independence and also about the kinds of individuals we are, the choices we make or don’t make.
It traverses an India where even if there were matrilineal land laws in some parts, girls had to be married off, and were not part of the various gin drinking gatherings. Nevertheless, change includes an Ammalkan defying convention to eschew marriage for a career with her mother’s surprising blessings, growing up includes students drawn to philosophy, variants of communism, and the music of Buddy Holly andmovies of Shammi Kapoor. Mental health issues are described and dealt with compassionately, though with the truism that we tend to ignore taking professional help.
It’s written as a series of vignettes, going back and forth between the lives of the different people whom Nitya comes across in his life; his family, school friends (Nitya ponders later on whether we actually have friends or just “half friends”), and people he meets at college and beyond. Compelling stories are told, sometimes blood curdling stories such as what happened when his cousin Suchi stumbled on a secret which deeply affected her. As you take a breath at the end of that vignette it is followed by a calming discourse on alphabets. Several tragedies befall many of the characters we become fond of. We are brought back from the gut wrenching crescendo of a story to steadying thoughts on life. There is a nod to Immanuel Kant, while the Charvakas whose appeal to Nitya and his maybe friend Chinma was not just the instant appeal of the argument they proposed but the “astounding fact that they had debated these things and propounded their theories in the sixth century BCE”.
Religion is worn lightly and with familial ease as when Uncle Madi advises Nitya to bring all his troubles to the rock near the oval pond where family lore said that the goddess Bhagavati had revealed herself, with the rider, “The ones in the prayer room indoors are always busy”.
Wry humour runs in and out through the stories, lifting the mood, sometimes even in a macabre manner at a funeral! A sharp sense of the absurd cuts to the chase on issues of ethnicity and religion as when Kareem asks his father why they didn’t go to Pakistan and he answers, “It’s not our fight…We have a different history. And who speaks Tamil in Pakistan?”
The relationship between parents and children flows through the book. Blathy whose descendants had mixed fortunes had once written about children, “They learn lessons they don’t fully understand. They see what it is that their parents want from them, and they do their best to give it; they are happy to see their parents happy. But they see also that their parents are curiously blind; why is it, they want to ask (but they don’t know how to ask it) that you see in us only what you want us to see?” Later, Nitya wonders about parents, “is it because we can never intuit some absolute or essential memory of their lives and the feelings that filled it before they became our parents that we treat them so mindlessly sometimes, with neglect and defiance, and find ourselves incapable of making even the smallest sacrifice to alleviate their fears?”
There are vivid descriptions of the Kerala countryside, fishing, catching a mongoose pet, and other parts of India like Bombay where “the buildings threatened to multiply if he looked away” and his first view of the Kedarnath Temple; “So modest it looks, andso unostentatious, that I am immediately attracted to it”. Pithy aphorisms or simple home truths appear; “Yes, ambitions if diagnosed early, can be cured” or as when Purusha, talking about his life said, “when I was young everybody I knew was poor and so I never thought of myself as poor”. Taken through a roller coaster of emotions, an act of simple kindness renews hope at the end.
All Stray Dogs Go to Heaven
By Krishna Candeth
pp. 552, Rs.695