Anjali Joseph: Saraswati Park (2010)

Famous for its electric chaos, the city of Bombay also accommodates pockets of calm. In one such space works Mohan, a contemplative man who has spent his life observing people from his seat as a letter-writer outside the main post office. But Mohan’s lack of engagement with the world has caused a thawing of his marriage. At this delicate moment Mohan – and his wife, Lakshmi – are joined at their home in Saraswati Park by their nephew, Ashish, a sexually uncertain 19-year-old who has to repeat his final year in college.

The calm, quiet and floating feeling that permeates Saraswati Park makes this one of the most beautiful novels I have read recently. If Anne Tyler had been born in Bombay this could have been a novel she would have written. One of the critics did compare Anjali Joseph to Elizabeth Gaskell and from all the comments I read on my recent post I have a strong feeling Saraswati Park could also be called a modern, Indian set Cranford. In any case it’s a work of perfection. Cosy with a touch of melancholy.

I have always been fascinated by India and visiting Bombay is high on my travelling wish list. Opening a book and feeling as if you were actually already on that trip is a wonderful experience. Saraswati Park is rich in details about the life in Bombay, the climate, the weather, the light, the flowers, plants and birds, yet it never falls into the trap of exotism. Joseph was born in Bombay, she knows the city and, having moved away, misses it. She doesn’t write for foreigners, she writes about her experience and captures facets of Bombay that a foreigner might not expect. We generally associate noise and chaos with Bombay. Who would picture such orderly quiet as it is described in Saraswati Park? But this Bombay, the elegant Bombay of the middle-classes is what Anjali Joseph has experienced.

What I liked best about this novel is the combination of the outside world with all its strangeness and the interior lives of the two main-characters and the blend of the familiar with the foreign.

Mohan belongs to the vanishing profession of letter writers. Sitting day in and out in the middle of the noisy bustling city and writing letters for people who aren’t able to write, he still manages to find peace and quiet in the chaos. He loves the sound of the pigeons running over the roof under which he is sitting, likes to huddle with the other writers around a cup of hot tea during the Monsoon season and enjoys the pouring rains. Books are his passion and he buys as many second-hand books as he can. Preferably those with annotations as this makes him feel as if  he was following in the footsteps of others readers. When the book-sellers are moved one day, it is a huge catastrophe in his life.

At home he sits quietly in a corner, drifting in and out of the novels he is reading and only slightly aware of his surroundings. His wife chooses to watch Indian soap operas instead and they both sort of drift past each other, both lost in their interior worlds.

Still there are so many moments of intense and quiet happiness in Mohan’s life even though he seems to be only a spectator of what is going on in the outside world. Mohan enjoys the early mornings when he is drinking his tea on his own. He loves to watch the birds outside and listen to the rain.

When his nephew Ashish comes to stay with them for one year, things start to shift and move slightly. The death of Laksmi’s brother is the final tipping point. Lakshmi’s sadness and underlying frustrations become apparent when she takes the train and joins her family to help look after an ailing cousin but doesn’t return after one week but stays for over four months. It becomes evident that they are both disappointed by this marriage. Mohan had hoped to find in his wife someone to share his interior worlds with.

But his wife had turned out to be a talker herself. She had her own narration, so confident that he was never sure whether his made any sense to her; then, later, he’d begun to feel that maybe his private thoughts were simply meant to stay that way.

Ashish is a young boy, a quiet student who has to repeat one year. He seems to like being motionless, even enjoys boredom to a certain extent and there is a deep sadness emanating from him. What his uncle doesn’t know is that Ashish is heart-broken. He is about to lose his boyfriend Sunder. Although he finds someone else, his tutor Narayan, this only makes him happy for a little while as this relationship also ends abruptly and the boy is heart-broken again.

The loss of the book sellers, Ashish’s presence and Lakshmi’s absence spur something in Mohan and he starts to write. The first steps are very tentative but through Ashish’s influence he gets more confident and one of his stories is finally published. What he likes best about writing is that he feels

(…) a lovely quiet come off the page. It was rich and held the shards of past experiences.

One of the final scenes shows Ashish taking a last train trip back to the suburb. The scene is such a marvelous scene for anyone who has ever lived far away from home or was going to leave home. It illustrates what I mean when I say, Anjali Joseph knows how to blend the familiar with the – to us – foreign.

From his window seat he looked with hungry eyes at the dirty worlds next to the tracks: the brightly painted shacks, the grubby faced children, the ugly concrete tower blocks, the smells. It was his city, his world; it might be imperfect but it was home. Yet he knew that only his imminent departure nurtured this sudden passion for Bombay, which sometimes was neutral environment in which he existed, and at other moments felt like a trap he’d never escape.

The biggest achievement of this novel is to capture a foreign world and make it sound familiar. To portray the inner lives of people so skilfully that we can identify with each one of them. Saraswati Park is about love and marriage, loss and discoveries but also about the power of imagination and memories, the beauty and danger of reading and ultimately also about writing.

This is certainly one of the most beautiful Anglo-Indian books I have ever read. Do you have any favourite Anglo-Indian writers?