Though the area outside the western Indian city of Dahanu is not an actual jungle, in Anosh Irani’s third novel, the same law applies: “higher eats lower.” Lowest of all are the indigenous Warlis, chained by serfdom to work the prosperous chickoo-fruit farms of their Irani landlords. The Irani people themselves were once persecuted, exiled from their native Iran. Jungle law requires that those oppressed by higher orders themselves oppress those beneath them, a cycle that continues all the way down to Laxman, a Warli man who beats his wife, Kusum.
When Zairos, a third-generation Irani, falls in love with Kusum, however, he finds himself violating the natural order that accords his family its status. The relationship also dredges up the history of the two families, involving a terrible, long-kept secret held by Zairos’s grandfather, Shapur.
The best part of this novel is its backdrop, a broad and colourful mosaic of eccentric secondary characters interacting with ribald humour and dramatic gestures: Zairos’s father hunting defecators in his woods, his cousin Bumble riding his motorcycle wearing a Santa suit, Xerxes the Dentist flying a glider above the Irani men who assemble each evening on the beach to watch the Arabian Sea.
Unfortunately, Dahanu Road’s central characters lack such richness. Zairos and Shapur’s parallel narratives are bogged down in clichés about the relationship of men to their land. The characters’ single-minded fixations on the natural order make for a frustrating read and result in uninspired revelations such as Zairos’s “insight” that Kusum “was not a mosquito, she was not a pig or horse, she was a woman with a past, present and future.”
It is the women who redeem the men of Dahanu Road, and who possess true strength after all. But in the world of the novel, such subversion of the natural order comes at a price. Or rather, Zairos and Shapur invoke the natural order not only to justify their own failures to protect the women they love, but also to excuse their complicity in the Warlis’ subjugation, which their consciences tell them is wrong. Though the novel concludes with Zairos and Shapur absolving themselves for their mistakes, readers are apt to be less forgiving.