Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

On Sale: 10/08/2010; Format: Trade paperback;  Publishers:  Harper Collins;  Fiction (South-Asian)

Mumbai with its chaos, complexities, concrete blocks housing hundreds of people, cosmopolitan population and where the  richest of the rich and poorest of the poor live side by side, continues to be a very popular city to write about.  Infact, in the last decade or so, there's been a spate of books about the city, "Maximum City" by Suketu Mehta,  "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts, "Sacred Games" and "Love and Longing in Bombay" by Vikram Chandra...the more recent one to join the list is Anjali Joseph's "Saraswati Park".

Just the title was enough to draw me to this book.  Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and the Arts in Hindu mythology and she has always been my favourite deity.  In the book, "Saraswati Park" is the name of a housing complex in a suburb somewhere deep in the heart of Bombay.  The story revolves around  empty-nesters, Mohan and Laxmi Karekar, whose lives are pretty humdrum and unremarkable.  Mohan is a letter writer ( one of those quaint jobs which is almost non-existant today) and from his seat under some tarpaulin near the main Post Office he sits and writes letters for those who are illiterate - anything from heartfelt letters to the completion of bureaucratic forms, while Laxmi is a homemaker. 

When we first meet Mohan and Laxmi their days are mundane with set routines and nothing much happens to alter it.  Both seem frustrated by this mundane existance.  An avid reader, Mohan wishes he could do more than just write letters....his secret desire is to write stories worthy of publication and Laxmi, frustrated by how his dreams make him distant from her turns to the television for company. 

I love how Joseph details Laxmi's frustration with their emotional detachment in this nicely-written excerpt:

"Four of Mohan's shirts, collected this morning from the ironing boys, lay on the bed. She looked at them in exasperation. It was still there, the mild ring of dirt inside his collars, like a smudged pencil line. It wasn't his fault; nothing could be done. She had scrubbed at some of them to remove the mark, but it had been the collar, not the stain, that had begun to despair and fray. It was in these things, which didn't talk or, strictly speaking, have lives, that her days played out: her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct that any other interaction these days."

One day the couple receive a call from Mohan's sister lamenting the fact that her son Ashish failed his college exams (due to poor attendance) and would have to retake them (unknown to the family, the poor attendance was due to Ashish's dalliance with a fellow classmate called Sundar).  Since they (Ashish's parents) were being transferred to a city to the north of India, would it be possible for Ashish to stay with Mohan and Laxmi for the year?  Mohan and Laxmi readily agree and soon the focus of the story moves to 19-year old Ashish - his life, his friends, his fears, his relationships, his secrets.   Despite there being "secrets" in this novel it has a very calm tone with a quietness and melancholy that emanates like faint perfume from every page, making it linger on with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book closed.

For those of you who grew up in Bombay (mid '80's)  this novel will be especially precious because of the author's wonderful observations and descriptions of this wonderful city I call home.  The strength of this novel is its everyday observations of a couple approaching their twilight years; of a youngster just starting to find his feet in this world and discovering his sexuality and last, but not least, of a city that is home to atleast 14 million people and who expands (like a rubberband) to accommodate thousands more everyday.

It is also a book about family love and obligations; growing old together, about love and loss and goodbyes.  All these may seem like heavy topics but they are handled deftly and delicately by Ms. Joseph and there is none of that masala or twists and turns that we have come to associate with other Bombay novels - just an initmate journey into the lives of everyday people who happen to live rather quietly in this bustling metropolis.   As much as I liked the other Bombay novels mentioned above, none of those plots seemed real to me.  My Bombay was like the Bombay one finds in Saraswati Park...of trees and birds; ordinary  people, school, college, the market, weddings, neighbours, old books, corner shops and so on.  This novel is a celebration of everyday life and seeing some beauty in it.

I'd like to close with a beautifully written passage found on page 253.  This is when Ashish is getting ready to leave for California for his future studies.  This passage resonated so much with me because, I, too, had to bid Bombay farewell around the same age Ashish did and it hurt so much:

"...he felt melancholic;  finally he understood what life was like, the meetings and partings it entailed.  It was a thought that only made him more attached to his life and the people in it.

From his window seat he looked with hungry eyes at the dirty worlds next to the tracks:  the brigtly painted shacks, the grubby faced children, the ugly concrete tower blocks, the smells...

It was his city, his world; it might be imperfect but it was home.  Yet he knew that only his imminent departure nurtured this sudden passion for Bombay which sometimes was a neutral environment in which he existed, and at other moments felt like a trap he'd never escape."


Sanjay said...

Thank you for this wonderful book review. You passion for reading and ability to capture the essence of a book are truly remarkable.
I have to say I like you loved the passage by the author on page 253.
But I have a small quibble about it.
I understand the sentiment but think calling it a neutral existence almost seems to suggest a lack of passion for the place?
How can one have a neutral existence in a place that at times feel like a trap or like home?
When you say this book describes a humdrum life, what made it seem so? Was it a lack of struggle? The emptiness was due to lack of children or the fact that they had grown and moved on?
How did you react to the melancholy? I know some people are turned off by that.
Also do you think today's Bombay is very different than what was described in the book?
Sorry I asked too many Qs but only because your review is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanj!

Thanks so much for your comment...your insights, questions, observations etc. always make me think.

I guess home can be different things to different people and at different times, no? There have been times in Bombay when I felt like a foreigner, but there were other times when I felt I belonged so well that I couldn't imagine myself being anywhere else...and for the most part, aren't we all indifferent to where we live? It's only when one has to say goodbye that you recall everything you've ever loved about the place with a fierce passion.

It was a humdrum existence for Mohan and Laxmi because the spark had gone out of their relationship. He existed on his dreams but Laxmi felt severely ignored. Many marriages are like that I suppose, especially after the children leave...I suspect the reason we don't see it in fiction so much is because it's too common to be interesting!

Don't know the answer to your last question Sanj...it's been over 10 years since I was in Bombay last. I'd love for you to read the book and answer it for me! :))

ஸ்ரீ.... said...


Thanks for the introduction. I will read and let you know about my review.


Sanjay said...

Thank you for your response Lotus. I think one can never be indifferent to where one lives. I cannot, I mean I may not always have a visceral reaction to it, but I always feel.
True that home is what one makes it to be.
Thank you for explaining the dynamic if the relationship.
I could surely tell you my impressions about Bombay and how they compare to the book, if I get around to reading it.
Someday. :-)

Veens said...

Awesome review, Lotus! I will definitely snag a copy when I am out and about! Your reviews are ALWAYS thought provoking :o)

Anonymous said...

I gave you an award. http://kinnareads.wordpress.com/2010/08/28/one-award-but-fifteen-new-book-blogs/

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for spotlighting this book - it sounds great! I am looking forward to when it publishes in October.

Anonymous said...

Pretty nice blog you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to them. I would like to read more soon.

Kate Hakkinen

Birdy said...

Great review. Brought Bombay alive for me. It has always been a vacation spot of sorts because my closest cousins all stay there. I remember school summer vacations filled with "golas" and ice-creams and sweaty games :) Bombay always brings those memories. Today, we are all working and hardly meet in Bombay, but whenever we meet and wherever we do, we always remember the place where we spent the most wonderful times.... :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Sri ~ Sure! Drop me a line when you have a review ready and I'd love to read it!

@Veens ~ You are a darling, thank you! I look forward to seeing you here...happy reading!

Lotus Reads said...

@Kinna ~ Thank you so much for the thoughtful award and for the wonderful blog you maintain! You have your finger on the pulse of African and World lit and I look forward to seeing your next round of reviews. Pleased to meet you Kinna!

Lotus Reads said...

@Booksync ~ Ok! I didn't realize it hasn't been published in the US yet? It's a quiet story...no plot...things do happen in the novel but they happen quietly and without any drama. The quietness in fact defines the whole novel - whether it's a death or a break-up that is devastating but just cant be expressed; or a
wife's seeming desertion - and the drama that does occur is wrapped up in this,it happens innocuously.

So maybe this was the point of the novel - to describe lives defined
by routine, but where the unexpected does come in - yes, quietly.

Lotus Reads said...

Birdy thank you for your delightful comment! Your memories are the same as mine and that is why I was so pleased to see a book on Bombay that harboured descriptions of the city as I remembered it.

The Mumbai of "Maximum City" and "Shantaram" is like a stranger to me. For me, Bombay was all about climbing trees, eating golas and paani puris, bicycling round the block, watching the rain, taking the train to Churchgate to spend the day with family, shopping for cheap paperbacks on the footpath of Flora Fountain and so on. This novel brought all that back for me! :)

Susan A said...

Hi Angie, I really enjoyed this review. There are exciting layers that shape it, especially with your clever explanation of Saraswati as goddess and the very personal Mumbai you draw upon. Well done as always!

Lotus Reads said...

You are too kind Suse! Thanks for making the time to read and comment. Saraswati is my favourite goddess...I have a beautiful image of her in wood just above my desk in my library. :)

lulu said...

hi lotus
so nice to be on your blog after ages.
have i told you how many books i've bought after reading your reviews? just some of the few books that i've picked up based on your blog posts:
- chef
- a girl from foreign
- girls from riyadh
i saw saraswati park in the bookstore today and was about to buy it but was reminded about all the books that i have bought and still not read so passed on it :(
will keep in mind for future though.
you have a terrific blog and have added so much to my reading list. thank you so much! keep blogging.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Thanks for this review. I am dying to read Saraswati Park :)

ram said...

Hi. i heard about the book this morning from newspaper....have the book published and selling in Chennai? and where to get this book if it published... pls guide me.... anyone of u... thanks....