Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews

The Hero's Walk

Anita Rau Badami
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (September 2001) 359 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 5711 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Blood Pressure, eh?" smirked Shyamsundar. "And after watching this sex bomb going tingi-tingi, finished, your blood-pressure machine will burst itself!" He jabbed an elbow into Sripathi and continued. "And thunder-thighs Madhuri, giving all those kissies to hero with her wet sari sticking everywhere... Ayyo! Where will your blood-pressure be, saar?"

The humour is gentle; the taste, smell, heat and sound of India is just right; the story is simple and beautifully told. All-in-all, this book is a delight.

It is not high blood-pressure which is causing Sripathi's distress, however. It is the sudden death of his daughter, Maya, and her husband in Vancouver, and his own guilt at having cut her out of his life. Sripathi is the hero of this story. Not a hero like Rama, or even a heroic fighter like Ravana, but a very ordinary Indian man who is prickly, stubborn and unsuccessful, and yet makes us warm to him and worry about him and about his family. He knows that he has disappointed his parents, his wife, his daughter, his son and even his boss, but he stubbornly refuses to change. Only his secret, pseudonymous letters to the local newspaper give him some small pleasure.

Anita Rau Badami's great skill is that all her characters come to life and are totally believable. In an ordinary Indian household, we get to know Sripathi's determined and likeable wife Nirmala, their quiet son Arun, Sripathi's unmarried younger sister Putti, his selfish, termagant of a mother Ammayya, and, especially, his seven-year-old, Canadian born granddaughter Nandana. Nandana has a relatively small part in the text, but the story revolves around her.

When Sripathi's young daughter wins a scholarship to study at an American (as he describes it) university he is proud and delighted. Partly to ensure that she returns, an engagement is arranged for her with a young Brahmin man whose horoscope suitably matches hers, and Sripathi and the young man's father become firm friends. They remain so until Maya writes to say that she had met and fallen in love with a fellow student and is going to marry him. Sripathi, embarrassed and angry, cuts her out of his life and refuses even to read her letters or hear anything about her. It is like cutting off his nose to spite his face. When Mira and her husband die in a car crash Sripathi goes to Vancouver to collect Nandana who, traumatized by the death of her parents, has stopped speaking.

Sripathi, Nirmala and the rest of the family cope as best they can with their own grief and with this strange, silent child whose life, now, is so changed. But life goes on, and Anita Rau Badami knows just how to use life's ordinary dramas to immerse her readers in the world she creates. Her India is easily recognizable to anyone who has been there, and the story is sad and funny, dramatic and absorbing, with no Bollywood melodrama or romanticized vision of an exotic location. It is just a sensitive portrayal of ordinary life in an old culture with old traditions and values, all of which are quite different to those in which the child Nandana has grown up.

Anyone who enjoyed Seth's, A Suitable Boy, or Naipaul's, A House for Mr Biswas, will enjoy this book. So, too, will anyone who likes a simple, well-written family story.


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