07 June 2009


The Tamil ticket

Author: Anand Mahadevan
Publishers: Penguin

Price: 199
Pages: 274

One of the most striking aspects about Strike is that it has this delightful vein of humour that runs throughout the book. 

 Set in the late 80s, Strike revolves around the quotidian life of a Tam Bram (Tamilian Brahmin) nuclear family in Nagpur. The novel follows the life of 12-year-old Hari and his somewhat painful initiation into adulthood. Much of this is evocative of R K Narayan's wonderful novel, Bachelor Of Arts (BOA) and its teenage protagonist Chandran, who tries to broaden his horizons and look beyond the comforting but conservative setting of his Tamilian upbringing. Much like in Bachelor Of Arts, in Strike too, Hari, on one occasion, teams up conspiratorially with his buddy, Mohan to see an adult film - Ram Teri Ganga Maili .

But unlike Narayan’s in BOA where he points towards the limitations of human aspirations and how one learns to nogociate within that space, Mahadevan’s ideas actually run contrary to that.

Early on, Hari has to fight his urge to try out the 'much-vilified' non-vegetarian food when his Bengali neighbour serves him with crisply made fish. He eats it, only to see his mother raise hell and make him vomit it all out. His grandmother steps on it accidentally, falls on the hard ground and dies. So the family - along with their Kollu tatha (great grandfather) - embark on a train journey to immerse the ashes in the Ganges.
Most of the action in the novel happens in the train, where Hari's curious mind starts to question many of the adult practices, only to be shushed by his mother. He wonders how the Ganges can be considered clean when so much dirt gets thrown into it. The adult world is somewhat satarised from the prism of Hari's enquiring, non-judgmental view. Mahadevan is especially uncharitable towards the women characters - starting from Hari's own mother whom he mostly portrays as typically orthodox and nagging. He also observes how women in his colony who seem to suddenly become sexually uninhabited on Holi day.

In the days leading to his uncle's return with his American wife to their maternal home, Hari is both amused and surprised seeing his mother and grand mom poking some fun at her expense. "If they are so upset with mama, why are they making so many sweets," asks Hari innocently. "To make him feel guilty," says his grandpa crisply.

The men in comparison are portrayed with far more affection by the author. The men in the novel always understand things and are less fussy. Whether it is Hari's father Girish, Kullu tatha, grandpa, all are presented as calm, empathetic beings.

The central episode in the book again revolves around a second train journey, which Hari undertakes with his mother. Lots of small things happen, charming vignettes. The story doesn't really move ahead but the author keeps the narrative interesting, introducing a discussion on MGR - the matinee idol of Tamil cinema and the then Chief Minister, carried out by co-passengers playing cards. There's interesting Tamil folklore that is talked about by the women, even as the trains chugs along. This is also where Hari has his first sexual encounter with a eunuch!

All of a sudden, the passengers hear about MGR's death and the next thing they know, the train has been stopped by strikers - the actor's fans. This part is inspired from the real-life seige that happened in 1987 and Mahadevan as a child was travelling in that train along with his parents.
An amusing episode occurs when Hari's uncle brings them sharkara pongal (sweet rice) since the train has been halted. In fact, he brings enough for the whole compartment since the order was taken in his factory before MGR died and a holiday was declared. The rioters are livid as they think sweets are being distributed on the day of their Idol's death.

The last part is a bit cumbersome to read. Hari wants to check out the machine inside the train and this ends in a needless tragedy. Also, the narrative shifts gears unannounced. It no longer remains a story seen through Hari's eyes.

Yet, since most of the book hints at the conformist, pious and non-adventurous nature of his Tam Bram family, it's an ironic twist of fate when the family is advised to move base to Canada, following the train incident. From being over cautious, now the family is fored to throw caution to the winds.

Mahadevan novel is an entertaining novel about Indian sub-culture - the Tamilian ethos - recounted with both affection and wry wit. The flavour really comes out in the author's description of food - with delectable images of South Indian delicacies.

Interview with Anand Mahadevan
1. The seige is a real-life event and I believe you were part of that train....

The novel came slowly to life sometime in 2002-2003. I was just beginning to think about writing as a career and wanted to capture a time of strong personal and public emotion. And without a doubt, the most "revolutionary" moment I could think of was the strike in 1987 when MGR passed away and life itself seemed to drain away from Tamil Nadu. I was in the train then, a nine-year old with his family and I have vivid memories of being stuck in that train for hours, the iron carriages heating up intolerably as the water in the toilets ran out and the pantry car attendants barricaded themselves inside when the food ran out. In fact the Ashok Leyland factory next to Ennore station did send us vats of chakra pongal (rice sweetened with jaggery and cashews) as food. I had been up exploring with my brother - we were pretty much given the run of the platform and the train back then - and I still remember the visceral shock of coming back to my parents compartment (my father had fetched us) to see our mother eating the pongal. Usually -and how traditional we were! - she would wait till we had all eaten, but that day the stress had worn her out. The rules with which we had grown up had changed, and I remember that still and wanted to capture it with as much truth that I could bear to bring upon it. So the public revolution is the death of MGR and the dreams he wove together with light and sound on the silver screen, the private revolution I chose to cast as a sexual revelation for my pubescent protagonist Hari. Once these elements were set, I started creating a world before and its destruction through the strike.

2) The Tam Bram sub culture was an integral part of R K Narayan's works. But while he seemed to appeal for a certain passivity and comformism (In Bachleor Of Arts, Chandran is soon made to realise the limitations of his horizons and he backs off), you do the opposite with your book - almost satarising the community's lack of adventurism, isn't it? The more they try to be cautious, they seem that much more vulnerable to accidents - all externally brought about. For example, Savitri's chain gets stolen, there's fear of Hari's arrest and finally the family has to move out of India. It seemed you were making a statement there.

R. K. Narayan's works are clearly infused with much greater insight into the workings of Tam Bram sub culture than mine are, partly because I was raised in Maharashtra (Nagpur, Pune) rather than in Madras and I did leave India at age seventeen and so missed a large part of the adult interactions in this world. There is also the difference in time to consider with Narayan's stories set in a more timeless India. I wanted my hero Hari to be a provocateur in the sense that he channels disturbance into the family and the novel by allowing himself to experiment. His sense of smell, taste, sight and hearing are not yet restricted by cultural norms and no-go areas and thus he reveals the futility of his family trying to barricade themselves behind physical walls of concrete and mental walls raised with tradition and ritual. I wanted to question that system through Hari and reveal the parts that the adults had blinded themselves to through the child's eye.
I feel that Tam Bram is a warm and rich sub culture that is very supportive of its members (as long as they toe the line) but ultimately an exclusionary culture that still embodies the collective memory of an old India with clear caste and class delineations which may or may not have existed. Some aspects are quite at odds with the rich democracy ofIndia now and I could not reconcile the two in the pages of the novel, hence the flight out of India for my characters.

3) You yourself moved to Canada later on....was that the impulse behind having the family and Hari 'uprooted' and moved to another country? Or could it be read as Hari's journey to an 'open world' - a new world without the shakles of the past - something he seems to be at odds with all along?

There were several reasons for the move to Canada in the novel. I was struggling to match up Hari's actions on the page with their consequences in the context of the Indian community then. His actions had grown to have impact in the adult world around him and yet he remained a child protagonist, an actor in the adult world without recognition or power. And rather than trying to wait for him to grow up and return to these days as an adult (and face Radha, Vishu and theother characters - which I felt would turn the novel into a morality play but which happens in an entirely new and plausible way in RebeccaNesvet's theatrical adaptation of The Strike called revolutions perminute), I took the route of escape from India - one that many TamBrams have used to find greener pastures, but in this case it is a punishment for both Girish, who never evidenced a desire to leave, and for Hari, who is cut from everything he knows to start all over in Canada. It is a form of a "golden-cage" punishment, attractive on the outside, but still without the freedoms he is used to in India.

4) I read somewhere you mentioning that Hari's attraction towards other young men is a kind of surrogate sexuality to give release to his sexual urge. You say that this may not be because of his orientation but because of the fact that there is/was a taboo if one were to be caught doing anything with a girl. Is that what you wanted to convey? Because there is a definite chance of it being read as Hari’s homoerotic feelings. Personally, I think a lot of boys/girls are confused about their sexuality when they attain puberty. Were you alluding to that predicament as well?

I think of Hari's sexuality as being queer rather than gay. As you point out, he is very young at 12 and so doesn't quite fit into our adult conceptions of sexuality as straight/gay. Rather I think he is still very much experimenting with his sexuality and the newly discovered idea of maleness. And of course as sex is a taboo topics amongst the adults he is curious and yet scared of it all. I think what I meant earlier was that it was (and still is for the most part) taboo for young boys to hang out with girls and so there is a homosocial environment into which the budding sexuality of children is allowed to express itself. So the "hanky-panky" occurs among same sex social groupings not necessarily because the kids are homosexual but because it is just socially easier. I do think that Hari goes beyond this and has a queer sense of sexuality and over the course of the book becomes much more comfortable with alternate sexualities like Radha the hijra represents, but I still am not sure what his adult sexuality would look like.

5) I thought you, almost refreshingly, do not extol mothers. Here of course, you make Hari’s mother the primarily the object of satire and save for maybe one charitable mention, she's mostly presented as nagging and typically orthodox. On the other hand, the elder men in the book are all uniformly kind, gentle and understanding.

I must be honest here, I felt I was writing from a young boy's perspective who does not want to be coddled and thus has a slightly more cruel perspective on his mother's affection than is warranted. I did not want the mother to be a caricature of a nagger neither be a "mother India" type figure of kindness and love. I wanted her to be frustrated with her own lot and have human frailties too but which are hidden from Hari for the most part because he is a boy's boy. He enjoys the company of men and boys because he finds them to be less complicated than women - and in that he is a boy more than anything else, after all the other boys and men have experiences closer to his own. Hari is also at the stage where girls and women both frighten and excite him and so there is a reticence to engage with them.
6) The fact that you use a lot of Tamil certainly brings a certain flavour to the narrative. But I'm curious why you haven't explained any of it in a Index?
My editors and I took the conscious decision to try and impregnate the text around the Tamil words with the meanings of the words themselves. In the North American edition, the Tamil words are italicized for a western audience but we chose leave out the italics for an Indian audience. I also feel that in India, we never really stick to one language. Our conversations borrow freely from the multitude of languages and the richness of such vocabulary is a non-issue in verbal communication in houses, in the media and on the streets. I wanted to make it a similar non-issue on the page. Yes, the reader may be unfamiliar with the dictionary meaning of the word, however, the flavour of the word will not escape them as they read the sentence in the context of the storyline. That is my hope.
7) Many NRI authors when they talk about experiences in their home town tend to be sentimental. Somehow, even though you have a fondness for the Tamilian culture, you chose to go in for a tragi-comic form -where even serious scene is treated in a wry, irreverent, funny way. Is that how you percieve life itself?
I do think life has its serious moments and it has its funny moments. In this novel I was trying consciously to think about the actions as a child and my own childhood was filled with moments of such adventure and fun that I could not keep that sense of joy far from Hari. But your question is rather astute and I am reminded now of the fact that in the novel that I am currently working on, one of the characters says to another, 'It's true, life is a tragedy if one only feels it, one must think about it to turn into a comedy.'
I am nostalgic about India in the sense that the India I remember growing up in, barely exists now. But I also think that is a good thing. India needs to move and change just like us NRIs need to grow and open in our new homes and lands. The love for the country of our birth, its richness of culture and smells, and the warmth of its people will remain with us as long as we remain on earth, but I do think that one must never forget that such warm blankets of nostalgic memory sacrifice living in the present for the dreams of the past.
8) One quibble I had. I was wondering why you left the thread about Hari's friends (Mohan, Anamika) mid-way, never refering to it again.
I agree with your quibble, I too wanted a way for Anamika and Mohan to return, but what would they say to each other? I look at the Strike as being a cesarean cut, one that has severed Hari from his childhood. And with the trauma of this experience he has changed more than his friendscan imagine. In truth, I do feel that they would have accepted him back without question, and that their friendship would remain strong, butthat Hari would be the one to hold back, to be on his guard, to check himself lest he taint them with his experiences.

9) Also, the whole novel is from Hari's prism but towards the end - after the train accident, the authorial /adult voice just takes over. How do you percieve this sudden shift?

Yes, there is a dramatic shift in voice (although the remarkable point here is that while Indian reviewers note this with some sadness, Canadian reviewers have accused me of not making such a shift in voice at all and demand it instead!) because of the dramatic shift in Hari'splace in the landscape of the story. It is as if an earthquake has happened that has changed the social order. The moment of revolution turns the narrative topsy turvy and affects the way the story is told as much as what happens in the story itself. My inspiration for this was from a German novella written long ago by Heinrich von Kleist called Das Erdbeben in Chile where he uses a physical earthquake to show the breakdown of classes and civilized ethos.
The change in voice is also meant to suggest the change in power, as a child living in a child's world, Hari has a voice, an agency and anability to effect change within it. But as a child, he is voiceless and bewildered by the events. In the trauma of the events at the trainstation in Ennore, Hari goes silent, his actions are primeval in this adult world and the narrative now belongs not to the child's world but rather to this new world that Hari has cast himself into.

10) Would love to know what you will be writing next

I am currently wrapping up a manuscript looking at the lives of two cousins, both from a Sufi mystic family that has a hereditary role in taking care of a shrine in Pakistan. One goes to London and becomes radicalized and the other goes to America and becomes westernized. Both return to Pakistan and are forced into conflict over the land and lucrative revenue from the shrine and must reconcile their personal growth and ambition with their obligations to family and religion. The story is partly inspired by the struggles faced by a Pakistani friend of mine in the post 9-11 world. In working on this novel, I had a chance to visit Pakistan (a few weeks after the Bombay blasts) and I was surprised by the sheer generosity of the people and the horror they felt at the actions of the militants. My hope is that we can, as a people, begin to erase the boundaries that separate us and learn more about how similar we are through conversation rather than through wars and bullets.

11) A little about the literary works that have influenced you

I tend to read widely, growing up under the influence of the magic realists but also with a strong awareness of German literature and music(one of my majors at University was German); I read Indian authors with great interest and now am quite pleased to see the roster of Pakistani writers who are adding balance to the South Asian narratives that have dominated world literature. I tend to read books where a writer wields a formidable pen in the English language, not just in terms of plot but in terms of the sheer beauty of the prose. I am referring to authors like Shirley Hazzard and Andre Aciman published by FSG in New York who clearly are in love with the English language and whose books you want to take to a quiet corner so you can read them out loud to yourself.


Gouri Dange said...

The books sounds like a great read. And this interview is good too. Nothing like an articulate interviewee; but a probing and thinking interviewer is a rarity!

Sandhya Iyer said...

Gouri - you're kind
BTW, I'm very keen to get my hands on Arzee- The Dwarf - the book you so heavily recommended to me.

Anonymous said...

The interview and review are insightful in ways that i never thought about when i read.
The toilet humor in some parts of the book spoilt it for me overall - else this was a comfortable read and I think the author has lot of talent. In his interview - i especially liked his take on why he made the 'mother' character that way - to me it is very insightful thinking