Context: Packing our final bags for emigrating to Papua New Guinea
This is a moving portrayal of life in India shortly after the reign of Indira Ghandi when, in the eastern Indian hills bordering Nepal, Maoist rebels began making their voices heard in Delhi. It’s definitely a melancholy book but also, in some ways, a tragicomedy, principally because the characters are crafted, for the most part, in an almost Dickensian way. Thus, it kept me guessing what Desai’s true views of the situation really were.
It’s a little like Mistry’s A Fine Balance meets The God of Small Things with a touch of Scott’s Staying On thrown in. I enjoyed it a great deal.
The book focuses on the lives of one or two families in the hills north of Darjeeling. Having been there many years ago, it was enjoyable to read about views of Kanchenjunga, Glenary’s restaurant and other local sights I remember. Everyone involved has, somehow, a connection with more traditional ways of life and it’s this which makes them wary of the changes that the rioting young men are demanding. This puts a tension into the novel which is never resolved.
Another tension which is resolved albeit in a depressingly realistic way, is that of home and abroad. Many of the characters have connections overseas, usually only now remaining in some rainbow-hued memories. But one character in particular does emigrate to New York and has a torrid time. The chapters relating his experiences were particularly moving.
The book flows well and the prose is, at times, Naipaul-esque with layers of imagery interspersed with the banal to make it more effective. The writing style complements the melancholy feel of the book really well. It’s not hard to see why this won the Booker.