27 hours ago we were in our home-town celebrating Diwali with our family and friends. Pleasant Indian evening weather filled with brightly lit lanterns and tasty festive food. Now, we are driving down to an empty home in this cold and dark, frost filled night in Boston. Is this what it feels to be uprooted?
My sister had said something like this to me when we were travelling back to the US from India. I understood what she meant, but only slightly. My stint in the US didn't last very long. She stayed there for more than a decade. Understanding grows deeper with time.
This book opens with a retired judge living out the rest of his years in a secluded bungalow in Kalimpong. A bungalow with a spectacular view of the Kanchanjunga. His life slowly unfolds throughout the book.
The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow.
First i felt he was boring. That turned into interest. Then anger. Disgust. And finally into a helpless sadness. His thoughts are locked in a hell he himself created through stubborn denial of reality. He ends up creating logical supports for his actions which seem justifiable in theory but in fact, hide strong prejudices towards others.
This was why he had retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended only in humiliation for the person in authority. Give these people a bit and one could find oneself supporting the whole family forever after, a constantly multiplying family, no doubt, because they might have no food, the husband might be blind and with broken legs, and the woman might be anemic and bent, but they’d still pop out an infant every nine months. If you let such people get an inch, they’d take everything you had—the families yoked together because of guilt on one side, and an unending greed and capacity for dependance on the other—and if they knew you were susceptible, everyone handed their guilt along so as to augment yours: old guilt, new guilt, any passed-on guilt whatever.
We all have our insecurities, our complexes. But when we are cut from people we know and like for too long, these negatives grow on us. And they can turn a simple, average, common, person into a monster. And the victim of the monstrosities that average people commit are the people closest to them.
For crimes that took place in the monstrous dealings between nations, for crimes that took place in those intimate spaces between two people without a witness, for these crimes the guilty would never pay. There was no religion and no government that would relieve the hell.
Then there is Biju. Son of a cook living in a hut outside the judges's bungalow. Desperate to go to the US like the judge had been years ago, to go to England.
In this room it was a fact accepted by all that Indians were willing to undergo any kind of humiliation to get into the States. You could heap rubbish on their heads and yet they would be begging to come crawling in….
The son fighting for his survival as an illegal in the US. Working and sleeping in kitchens of Harlem. Underpaid, overworked. The father unhappy and longing for his son, yet proud of his achievement.
This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere; they could never be in a single existence at one time. How wonderful it was going to be to have things otherwise.
There are many other characters. Sai, granddaughter of the judge who arrives at his doorstep on day, orphaned. Their neighbours Noni and Lola, living in a colonial hangover, eating oyster mushrooms for breakfast. Gyan, Sai's maths tutor and many more. These diverse characters come from totally different backgrounds and living in totally separate worlds, yet they are next to each other every day. Class divide, religion divide, sex divide, every possible prejudice is laid bear by the author beautifully. Though it began slowly this book was a treat to read once i got involved in the story. The trick, i guess, is to find something to relate to with every character.
“Time should move,” Noni had told her. “Don’t go in for a life where time doesn’t pass, the way I did. That is the single biggest bit of advice I can give you.”
“He was the real hero, Tenzing,” Gyan had said. “Hilary couldn’t have made it without sherpas carrying his bags.” Everyone around had agreed. Tenzing was certainly first, or else he was made to wait with the bags so Hilary could take the first step on behalf of that colonial enterprise of sticking your flag on what was not yours.
"He hated his tragic father, his mother who looked to him for direction, had always looked to him for direction, even when he was a little boy, simply for being male."
“You are sure you want to go back??” Mr. Kakkar said alarmed, eyes popping. “You’re making a big mistake. Thirty years in this country, hassle-free except for the bitch-witch, of course, and I have never gone back. Just even see the plumbing,” he indicated the sound of the gurgling toilet behind him. “They should put their plumbing on their flag, just like we have the spinning wheel—top-class facility in this country.
The universe wasn’t in the business of justice. That had simply been his own human conceit—until he learned better.