This first novel by the author is a tender story about childhood and coming of age, replete with family ambitions, adolescent curiosity, sensibility, shame, guilt and danger.
Hari, nearly an eleven-year old boy, tries to make sense of his tumultuous and complex world. He goes to his Bengali friend’s house and eats fish for the first time which he had never tasted before as he hails from a conservative South Indian Brahmin family which subscribes to vegetarianism. When he returns home and tells his mother about it, she is annoyed with him and his paati (grandmother) on finding him in the vomiting in the thottam, tries to come near him, slips, falls and dies before reaching the hospital. The reality of death strikes him. He says, “They put her into the furnace and my father lit the flame. That was it; she came out as a heap of ash.” He tells Mohan, his friend, pointing towards his home, “She’s in there, you know. Inside two silver urns in the living room. My father is going to take the ashes to Benaras so we can spread them in the Ganga.”
When Hari sees the Ganga at Benaras, he is struck by its dirty waters and asks, “Why do people come to the Ganga to wash themselves clean when the river itself is so dirty?”
Hari’s great grandfather explains to him why meat should not be eaten. “…It is the intent of the flesh. Eating animal flesh creates animal passions within the body…As Brahmins, we avoid foods and practices that distract us from our goal.”
Among friends, Hari prefers talking in Hindi rather than in his mother tongue Tamil. This leads to slanderous graffiti against his family in Madras.
Hari’s friendship with the household-maid lands him in trouble with Vishu, a militant Tamil-film fan and political functionary. Matters come to a head when MGR, the film star-turned-politician, dies and his supporters led by Vishu declare a strike, trapping Hari and his mother in a train bound for Madras. The author describes the scene when MGR dies and Jayalalithaa arrives, her eyes swollen red from crying. She wants to go near MGR’s dead body but is prevented and pushed away by the people, who tell her that only his family can stay next to MGR, not a starlet. She cries and leaves in a huff.
In the end, Hari and his parents leave India to go and start life afresh in a foreign land.
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