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?

30 thoughts on “Anjali Joseph: Saraswati Park (2010)

    • I liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories a lot but stayed away from the novel. Maybe I did right. I haven’t read Glen Duncan. Need to read your reviews. Thanks for the links.

  1. I confess to being completely underread in this area! I haven’t heard of either author or book, but your lovely review makes me very enthusiastic to try it.

  2. I should read this, I’ll probably like it but I’m not sure it has been translated into French.

    Have you read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy? I’m afraid it’s the only recommendation I have.

  3. I’m afraid I’m also very underread in this area, too, but I am interested in India and Indian literature. I think the few books I’ve read have been by British or American authors that just happen to be set there. I am reading one of the Orange Prize longlist books–The Pleasure Seekers, which is by an Indian author–and am enjoying it very much. I am adding this one to my wishlist! (After reading the comments–I have read The God of Small Things, but I didn’t click with it at the time (don’t go by me, though, as everyone else in my then book group loved it!), and now I remember another–The Death of Vishnu. I have heard A Fine Balance is an excellent book and one I do want to read!

    • I have to have a look at The Pleasure Seekers. I did like The God of Small Things but I liked this one even more. I did also read The Death of Vishnu but cannot remember it anymore.

      • I recommend William Darymple’s books “The White Mughals” and “The Nine Lives”. There is also “The Palace of Illusions” by chitra banerjee.

  4. I always love reading your review, it always feels like reading a short story version of a full novel. I know small chance I will this book, but your description already made me feel like reading it.

    I like the quote on how bad the city is, its his city, its home. I feel the same toward Jakarta, no matter how poluted it is, this is where I feel I am at home.

    • Thanks, Novroz. Maybe you could find it. Don’t you find Indian authors in Indonesia? I would like to see Bombay. I’m not sure about Jakarta but I spoke to some Europeans who were in Bombay and couldn’t cope with the chaos. And the poverty. I would like to see India anyway.
      I see how you can feel home at home in jakarta. When a place is very unique it’s like nowhere else in the world. I can go to any big city in the world and it will never feel like Paris.

  5. This sounds like a beautiful read and if its at all like Anne Tyler (one of my top 5 authors) then that’s recommendation enough. A fine review indeed

    • Thanks, Tom. I hope you will like it should you give it a try. The tone and the way the inner lives are described did remind me a lot of Back When We Were Grownups.

  6. I really enjoyed Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (nonfiction), The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, and Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal, I think there have been a couple more, but can’t recall names or titles at the moment.

  7. I too am intrigued by India and Bombay in particular, so will probably be reading this one. Anne Tyler is also a favorite.

    Caroline, have you read “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy? An unusually lyrical novel set in India. I think you might like it.

    • Imagine the photos you could take (if you have’t been there already). I hope you will like it when you read it. I have read The God of Small Things and liked it a lot. I also like Jhumpa Lahiri but another book I really loved and that was so special is Shining Hero by Sara Banerji.

  8. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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