It is a novel that raises and puts on the table truths-that-must-not-be-named as we collectively collude in an unspoken conspiracy to paper over the unseemly pockmarked aspects of the accepted model of ‘development’. The putrid underbelly under the glossy ‘modern’ feel is exposed as the author fixes her clinical gaze through her narrator on the unacknowledged recesses and crannies of urbanisation, says Preeta Menon in this review
Author: Kavery Nambisan
Publisher: Aleph, India
There is a sense of déjà vu when you read this quiet unpretentious novel; and you realize that the title primes you for it. A Town Like Ours is full of characters and stories that seem to be a part of something or someone we have heard of, read about or know. It zooms in on the otherwise neglected territory of emerging small town India with its unapologetic local flavour, through which Nambisan fashions a commentary on the larger picture. It is a novel that raises and puts on the table truths-that-must-not-be-named as we collectively collude in an unspoken conspiracy to paper over the unseemly pockmarked aspects of the accepted model of ‘development’. The putrid underbelly under the glossy ‘modern’ feel is exposed as the author fixes her clinical gaze through her narrator on the unacknowledged recesses and crannies of urbanization.
Pingakshipura is our town under the scanner. Unremarkable for the most part but for two things…their resident Goddess of indeterminate gender and their curiously white haired children. An accepted reality now, this unnatural hair colouring can be traced back to the establishment of Sugandha Enterprises, an industrial conglomerate that does two things—provides jobs and pollutes the surroundings. Pingakshipura has mutated from a village to a town fuelled by the rapacious greed of the Brahmin head priest turned Vaishya entrepreneur of Sugandha Enterprises. The desperate, dark story of a town slowly being choked by the effluents of the various industries is a comment on the rampant encroachment into village life and land by the behemoths of industrial development. The narrative puts together a series of seemingly disparate occurrences that come together as a whole to give us a story that works for the most part. This is the background; the focus is on two stories that run into each other. The stories of Saroja and Manohar, both of who are impacted by the larger canvas. The unexpected and unusual camaraderie between Saroja, a canny pavement dweller, and Manohar, a happily married, mixed up college professor, is woven together very believably in the course of things; more so because it originates in the common, secular, accessible space of a town restaurant. Food! That great equaliser!
There are no dramatic flourishes in terms of character, setting or language; everything is understated. The writer’s strength lies in her deep affinity with her characters and their journeys. Incredible though they may seem, set against an unremarkable, at times dreary everyday town reality, these stories of love, loss, and longing are very believable; whether it is Vasanthi Madam, desperately trying to learn music, or at the other end of the spectrum, ‘Lectric Mamu desperately wooing the implacable Saroja; or Saroja herself who liberates herself and her destiny with an unspeakable act of violence, and fiercely guards her family only to surrender herself for the sake of an achingly impossible dream. Saroja and Sampathu raise their two wards in a taxi that becomes their two room home at night, and a tea and bonda stall in the evenings. Saroja and Sampathu, a common law couple follow somewhat similar trajectories on their way to the anonymity granting all-embracing town from their villages. And then there’s Manohar, who has a very solid fourteen year old marriage with Kripa. They are a much in love couple, who affirm and validate each other but they also withhold uncomfortable secrets from each other, with drastic consequences. Then there are the children, Saroja’s Gundumani and Sampathu’s Rukmani and their impossibly twined and unravelling destinies. Not to forget the canine offspring in Manohar’s fable. The novel does not offer any conclusive closure, some questions and stories are not tied up, because they are not meant to be. The disquiet lingers.
Nambisan’s narrator is Rajkumari; she does well to hand over the reins of the story to the classic outcast: a sex worker past her prime. She is housed in the most unlikely location, the premises of the local temple, almost as a rival Goddess, with her own band of faithfuls, her strange cow-buffalo pet, and her omniscient vision that comments dispassionately on the goings on around her, including her journey into and through the world of trafficking and sex workers. The flat matter of fact tenor with which most of these life defining (for the characters) turns and circumstances are described serves to emphasise the everyday horror of lives lived on the fringes.
Nambisan’s narrative makes the successful entrepreneur’s life and lifestyle a mere postscript, in a reversal of emphasis and focus. What does jar at times is the language she equips Rajkumari with in order to describe things like illnesses and social issues, and the awkward digressions into commentaries that makes the story a little flabby and hampers the flow. At these times Rajkumari’s persona becomes the weakest link in the book.
The tone of dispassionate enumeration about things as they are that begins on the first page, about men relieving themselves in the open, works more effectively than an intense breastbeating about everyday horrors, none of which are imagined, startling, or a product of a paranoid world view. They serve to nudge you into a reluctant acknowledgement of a reality we have learnt to ignore. It would have worked better if it had been a little more lean, but then life is not linear and monochromatic, and in a Dickensian manner, it does all fall together.
Finally, it is very relevant that Nambisan subtly targets the indiscriminate greed of a particular class that ravages the lives and livelihoods of lesser mortals. What is significant is that she does not let her characters wallow in despair, but equips them with a resilience that may be a tad too pat and romantic at times, but does go against the dominant grain of romanticizing their passivity rather than their enterprise.