House of Blue Mangoes

Source: The New York Times, March 31, 2002

THE HOUSE OF BLUE MANGOES
By David Davidar.
421 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.
THE HOUSE OF BLUE MANGOES
By David Dravidar.
421 pp. New York:
Harper Collins Publishers. $26.95

FOR 15 years, David Davidar has had a ringside seat in the exhilarating world of Indian publishing. As the C.E.O. of Penguin India, he has participated in the birth of a remarkable national literary renaissance. Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry: many of the subcontinent’s brightest stars have come within his orbit. All along, it turns out, Davidar was also working on his own novel. When it was finally completed, he sent his manuscript out under a pseudonym, reportedly so that it would be picked up on merit rather than on the strength of his reputation.

It’s hardly surprising that even without his name on the cover Davidar’s manuscript was received eagerly by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. ”The House of Blue Mangoes” is a polished and accomplished book that shows little of the typical hesitancy or overwriting of first novels. Ten years in the making, it’s an ambitious effort that represents something of a throwback to an earlier movement in Indian literature, before the minimalism that has been fashionable of late, when authors like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth painted vast tableaus that portrayed the stories of individuals even as they allegorized the nation. In fact, Seth edited an early draft of this book; that seems singularly appropriate for a novel that intertwines the personal and the political, the individual and the historical, in much the same way as Seth’s masterly — and voluminous — 1993 novel, ”A Suitable Boy.”

Unlike Seth’s novel, which took place in the north of India in the 1950′s, ”The House of Blue Mangoes” is set in the south and spans the first half of the 20th century, ending just before independence. The novel tracks three generations of the Dorais, a Christian family whose fortunes are buffeted by the tumult of history.

In the novel’s first section, Solomon Dorai, the headman of the fictional village of Chevathar, watches his world collapse amid the intercaste violence that shook southern India at the turn of the century. When we meet the Dorais again in the book’s next section, they are exiles from their ancestral village. One of Solomon’s sons, Aaron, joins the independence movement and pays with his life; the other, Daniel, starts a successful business and returns to Chevathar, building a sanctuary for his extended family.

Daniel’s son, Kannan, whom we get to know in the book’s final section, initially rejects his heritage. Against his father’s wishes, he marries an outsider and works as a manager at a tea plantation in the hills, determined to ignore the political ferment of a nation increasingly straining at the yoke of colonial oppression. By the end of the novel, Kannan has succumbed to both politics and family: unable to endure the racism and superciliousness of the British planters, he is forced to acknowledge his identity as an Indian and returns to his roots. ”This is the land of my family,” he tells himself. ”We have made its hard red earth our own with our failures and our triumphs, our blood and our laughter. I’m glad I’m here, it is the place of my heart.”

The struggle between family and society, the often violent obligations of tradition, the dislocations of history — these are weighty themes. Davidar is aiming high, and as a result ”The House of Blue Mangoes” has a seriousness and substantiveness often lacking in modern fiction. But the social novel is fraught with difficulties, and there are moments when Davidar stumbles under the weight of his aspirations.

Some of the obstacles he faces are particular to Indian (or, at any rate, non-Western) writers. For modern Western novelists, the challenge of the social novel is to engage meaningfully with a culture that is ever-changing, even evanescent. (Jonathan Franzen has memorably described the problem: ”Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change: how to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it?”) But for Indian authors, the difficulty involves writing for a Western audience that knows little about the society in question. V. S. Naipaul, lamenting the difficulties he faced, pointed out that ”fiction works best in a confined moral and cultural area, where the rules are generally known.” In the absence of such a shared context between author and audience, how does one situate a narrative?

Writers like Rushdie and Seth — and now Davidar — have responded to this challenge by attempting to reconstruct in their fiction the edifice of subcontinental culture. Their novels are not only narratives of human drama but fictionalized ethnographies, explorations and lessons in cultural difference that provide context even as they tell a story. When Davidar writes about caste violence he also explains the intricate rules and norms that govern caste relations; when writing about Aaron’s engagement with the Indian independence movement, he provides far more historical background than, say, an American writer would need to offer on the Revolutionary period.

Such cultural forays account for the sprawl of Davidar’s novel. They probably account, too, for some of the popularity of Indian writing in the West: like travel books — or indeed like travel itself — the best of this fiction takes you to foreign places and, in the process, teaches you about those places. But the danger of straying too far into ethnography is that the fiction will flatten into social science. For all the polish of Davidar’s prose, ”The House of Blue Mangoes” can be curiously unengaging — a novel of ”information rather than inspiration,” as one Indian commentator has put it, in which the narrative is drowned by a surfeit of explanation.

The breadth of information in the book is impressive, ranging from straightforward history to traditional Siddha medicine to the intricacies of tiger hunting. But the lyricism of Davidar’s prose is blunted by the didacticism of these learned disquisitions. Too often, the narrative is interrupted by grand generalizations (on, for example, the ”Hindu way of ordering time”). And when the interruption isn’t grandiose, it can simply be banal. ”The hardy acacia is native to Sindh but over the years it has spread to the rest of the subcontinent,” begins one chapter in the first section, just as the tension leading up to the caste conflict is starting to build. In another chapter, the reader’s patience is taxed by a lengthy list of ingredients in a home-cooked meal: ”thick seer fish cuts, fresh and glistening, a gleaming mound of rice that had been washed and drained, onions, green chilies, garlic, ginger, coriander, red chilies, turmeric, curd, mint leaves, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, aniseed, cumin seed, cake seed and mace (all to be ground to make the masala which gave the dish its unique taste), a pinch of saffron, ghee, thick and fragrant.”

Like nuggets crying out to be extracted, there are moments of genuine power and wisdom amid all the cultural signposts. Davidar’s descriptions of the caste wars are gripping. There is poignancy — and dignity — in the conflict that rages within Kannan Dorai between his Indian identity and the British colonial world he inhabits on the tea estates. But while Davidar’s characters may reveal glimpses of psychological depth, they are given little chance to share their wisdom with us. The irony is that while we learn a good deal about history and society from this novel, we learn less about the one thing that fiction is supposed to teach us — life.

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