Book Review by Kajoli Banerjee Krishnan
Title: Boys from Good Families
Author: Usha K.R.
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
It was twenty-five years ago that Usha K.R. stepped into the literary world with ‘Sepia Tones’ that won the 1995 Katha Short Story Award. Her first novel Sojourn was published in 1998. Her subsequent novels The Chosen (2003), A Girl and a River (2007) and Monkey-man (2010) have been critically acclaimed. A Girl and a River was awarded the Vodafone Crossword Prize in 2007. Amongst her other short stories are ‘Elixir’, that appeared in Boo, An Anthology of Ghost Stories and ‘The Boy to Chase the Crows Away’ that was shortlisted in the Best Asian Short Stories 2017 by Kitaab.
Usha’s fifth novel Boys from Good Families traces the story of Ashwath. Living with his parents and sister Savitri in ‘Neel Kamal’, their family home, he grows up within a conservative household in the city of Bangalore during the 1970’s and 80’s. Ashwath finds his parents rigid in their beliefs, expectations from them and his extended family dreary and claustrophobic. A romantic at heart and somewhat undecided about his future, he enjoys exploring the city and its surroundings, watching films and starts to fall in love with a remarkably capable and charming Thippy.
This phase abruptly comes to an end when his parents come to know of his affection for Thippy who lives with her family in the outhouse of ‘Neel Kamal’ and is considered a social unequal. They throw out Thippy and family.
That single act of forbiddance jostles Ashwath into taking charge of his destiny. He decides to leave home, the city of Bangalore and move to a university town in American mid-west for higher studies. Although dejected at his son’s departure and despite his parsimonious nature, his father sends him money from India to support his education. But, thereafter Ashwath is on his own.
After some initial hiccups, he manages to find a job in corporate America, learns to negotiate a different culture and way of life. With an apartment in a well-to-do area overlooking the lake in Chicago, he finds friends amongst the art and theatre people he hangs out with. Progressing well in his career, he seamlessly adapts to the parleys and past-times of his peers.
A decade later in the 90’s, during an economic downturn in America, his luck runs out. He loses his job, savings and upmarket apartment. Determined to continue to support himself, he learns to come to terms with his changed circumstances with odd part-time jobs, strained living, lodging and loneliness.
Right from the time he comes to America, his parents and sister send him updates on their lives. Subsequently, they beseech him to visit but he limits his communication with them to brief cards. His news travels back to Bangalore though through mutual acquaintances who make it their business to nose and know. After a period of struggle, Ashwath, having discovered and honed new skills, finds his place in the culinary world.
In the meantime, in the new millennium that arrives, his parents wilt away pining for the son who left and never came back. They pass away in quick succession. Finally, it is his inheritance, the family home, ‘Neel Kamal’, that draws him back to Bangalore after twenty-five years. The vista of a much altered city, memories of a home that was, parents that are gone, meeting his sister and her family in circumstances that he could not have imagined, finding a resonance in his niece and nephew tugging at his heart and discovering Thippy of the yore in a divine incarnation is a lot to grapple with. But, somewhere in his journey, he has willed to find the equanimity to figure out a settlement for ‘Neel Kamal’ and return to the country that he made him one of its own.
Boys from Good Families touches upon some of the underlying themes in Usha’s earlier work – migration (The Chosen), truncated relationships (A Girl and a River) and unmitigated urban sprawl in Bangalore (Monkey-man). Although the novel is more extended in its scope of geography, range of characters and experiences, in her exquisite attention to detail Usha remains, as noted earlier by Namita Gokhale a quintessential “miniaturist”.
In the mornings before he left for college, Ashwath would try to catch a glimpse of Thippy. “The hibiscus bush obscured her from sight. He could only see her hands, a red glass bangle on an angular bony wrist. She emerged with his mother’s copper plate full of red flowers, and again disappeared from sight as she walked to the back of the house to leave the flowers on the ledge outside the kitchen. When he heard the gate squeal, he knew she had left for the temple, and he too would go in and get on with his day”. Throughout the narrative, these minute observations of trees, places, people and homes travel back and forth between southern India and American mid-west with a depiction so moving that the story acquires the embodiment of a screenplay.
In her book, Usha juxtaposes multiple elements that are seemingly antithetical between Ashwath’s own and adopted country. Amongst these are differences in the landscape, patterns of response to adversity and nature of kinship.
The first time he arrives at Chicago Ashwath feels “Anything was possible here … in a city that had changed the course of a river and made it flow backwards, uphill”. While his sister Savitri finds succour in spirituality to summon the courage to handle her family life back in Bangalore, Ashwath slogs at part-time jobs in book shops and restaurants to earn a living as he awaits a better future in Chicago.
When they were growing up, the most frequent visitor at home used to be Suchi mama, their father’s brother. He both counselled and interfered. A grand celebration of Ugadi at Suchi mama’s house that Ashwath attends when he visits Bangalore after the long hiatus is an extended family affair. During one of his walks in the university neighbourhood while he was studying, he chanced upon the home of his advisor. “It was just before Halloween and there were lighted pumpkins on the window sill, all in a row, like Diwali lights. The front door opened, Bill recognized him, and invited him in. The family was about to have dinner. The table had been laid and he found himself moved by the sight of this simple, daily act, the dining table with its plates in place, the cutlery all laid out, a low light hanging over it, a glowing orange. The scene seemed to him like act of prayer, a private moment of contemplation into which he had been admitted”.
The contradictory threads in the novel present themselves without being judgmental. There is an implicit hint of the opportunity that migration presents that can transcend familial alienation and social distances to rewrite the contours of boundaries that connect people. Aprameya, Savitri’s son and his friends share an ideal and interest in theatre, not ties of blood, language or class.
The essence of the novel is summed up in the enduring imagery of the epigraph that lends the story a certain universality and transforms every character into a protagonist.
Kajoli Banerjee Krishnan is a physicist by training. She has been an active researcher for over three decades. She loves to read and write, cares for nature and cherishes liberty. She blogs at: unfoldthewings.wordpress.com.
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