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Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph had been on my 'wish list' for many months after I saw it reviewed on Curiousbookfans.co.uk. The nice computer programme at Amazon.co.uk had been predicting I'd like it and pushing me towards it for a long time too, undoubtedly not finding it too difficult to spot my obsessive buying of books set in India. Since nobody on the book exchange site Readitswapit wanted to let me have a copy despite multiple attempts to get it, I was thrilled to bits when a fellow Ciao and dooyoo member asked if I wanted her copy. I'm currently planning a trip to India in November so anything set in Mumbai or down the west coast of India is bouncing to the top of my reading list.
~I get up when I want except on Wednesdays~
In Saraswati Park, a fictitious middle-class suburb of Mumbai, live Mohan and Lakshmi, a couple whose children have grown up and flown the nest. Lakshmi is a housewife who seems to be losing her sense of purpose and worth now that the kids are gone, taking her only enjoyment from her daily dose of the television soap operas. Mohan spends his days as a 'letter writer', sitting with others of his kind beside the entrance to the GPO, helping the illiterate to put together letters to relatives or to fill in application forms. It's a job from an earlier era and one that marks Mohan himself out as a man of an earlier time. He could have been so much more if his father had not forced him out of college and into work and this sense of lost opportunity gives Mohan a weary air of disappointment that colours his daily life. His passion - since every man with a dull job NEEDS a passion - is for literature. Mohan wants to be a writer and spends his free time combing through the bookstalls around the Flora Fountain and fine tuning his drafts of short stories. Had he had the chance of more education, perhaps he too could have been a famous business man like his old classmate Yezdi Sodawaterbottlewala.
An irrelevant aside - I laughed out loud at the old school mate's name until I typed it into google and discovered no results for Sodawaterbottlewala but 121 for Sodawaterbottleopenerwala. You see it's not unusual in India for people to take on a name that describes what they do (or their ancestors did) for a living. I've seen characters in other Indian books, especially those set in Mumbai, called Engineer and Contractor so I guess it's not so unusually to be named after your job - in this case, opening the lids of fizzy drinks.
Into the dull suburban life of the couple comes a much needed injection of new blood. Whilst Mohan and Lakshmi have reached a point in their marriage where they're irritating each other even when trying to be kind and pleasant, the appearance of Mohan's nephew Ashish gives new meaning and interest to their lives. Ashish has failed his final year of school for poor attendance. He's not stupid - he just can't be bothered to go to classes. His parents need to move to another city for work and ask Mohan and Lakshmi if Ashish can stay with them whilst he repeats the year. Without graduating from school his options in life will be limited and Mohan, himself robbed of academic opportunity and happy for Lakshmi to have a focus to her life, agrees. Ashish moves in with them becomes friends with the girl downstairs and does his best to be a good lad. At school Ashish is soon involved in a relationship that causes him great upset and subsequently gets into another relationship with a much older tutor to whom he's been sent to cram for his exams.
~Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur~
As a tale of sexual awakening it's got a lot of potential but there's an angle which becomes apparent very early in the book but surprisingly isn't mentioned on the cover. I think it's fair to discuss it without risk of spoiling the story because it's revealed very early and forms perhaps the only unusual twist in what is otherwise a gentle tale of middle-class folk. Both the schoolboy crush and the relationship with his tutor are homosexual. The first is with a wealthy fellow pupil whose actions lead Ashish to realise why he's never been interested in girls. The latter relationship with the tutor is altogether more exploitative and more worrying. I don't ask a writer to have personal experience in order to write about sexuality - that's why some things are called 'fiction' after all. As a heterosexual woman writing about gay male relationships, I didn't 'buy' Anjali Joseph's treatment of young Ashish and his sexual adventures (or misadventures). It was like watching someone who's never been off dry land write about sea sickness and was decidedly superficial.
When reviewing Farahad Zama's book 'The Wedding Wallah' earlier this year, I commented that it was the first time I'd read a book set in India in which the gay character didn't get his 'comeuppance' for his sexuality. For a while I wondered if Saraswati Park might also break the unwritten rules of Indian books that seem to insist that all gay relationships are doomed to be at best unhappy and at worst tragic though I'm not going to tell you how it works out, much as I'd like to.
Not all of the book makes sense; the unexpected good fortune which befalls Ashish towards the end of the book is convenient but hard to understand and never explained; the passages about owls and eagles seem to be going 'somewhere' but never quite arrive at the point. The growing separation between Mohan and Lakshmi is neither really explained nor explored but readers will be rooting for them to sort out their differences, if only because they're just not powerful enough characters to be able to keep their distance.
~All the people, so many people~
The cover of my edition tells me that the Daily Telegraph included Anjali Joseph on its list of "20 best British novelists under 40" which I found surprising. Saraswati Park is a competent but not particularly memorable or outstanding novel. Then I realised that Indian-born but British-educated Miss Joseph is a graduate of the University of East Anglia's creative writing MA course. Graduates of the course get a lot of attention and it can't hurt that several lecturers seem to be on every awards panel ever pulled together these days. If the cover quote is to believed, the reviewer from The Times likened Anjali Joseph to a "latter-day Mrs Gaskell" and another review I've read suggests the story is Chekhovian. In each case I'd take these as shorthand for a book that's rich in little details and observations but shallow in the actual scope of the story. Or to put it another way - not much happens. Saraswati Park is simply an account of less than a year in the lives of three people, none of them exceptional or outstandingly interesting, each of them living side by side without their orbits really intersecting. It's the ordinariness of the characters that stays in your mind at the end of the book more than the events.
The writing is slick, the characters believable, but on the whole, there's just not enough happening between the covers to justify 260 pages of text. My bookshelves are filled with fabulous books about Mumbai - this book offers little competition.
Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph
Published by Fourth Estate
(With apologies to Blur for the headings and subheadings)