Anita Rau Badami’s fourth novel steps lightly along the familiar path laid down by her previous books, telling the story of an Indian family dealing with trauma, intrigue, and complex relationships.
The Dharma family lives on the outskirts of a small, ambiguously “Northern” town called Merrit’s Point. The father, Vikram, is an abusive tyrant, so concerned with keeping up appearances and not sullying the family name that he would rather beat his wife and daughter in private than be embarrassed by them in public. His first wife, Helen, was beautiful and unfaithful, and after enduring one last beating, left Vikram and their young daughter, Varsha. She didn’t make it far, however, dying in a car crash before even getting out of town.
In short order, Vikram travels to India where he finds Suman, who, at 30, is already past prime marriageable age, but deemed suitable to become his new wife, mother to Varsha, and caregiver to Suman’s ailing mother. At first, Suman sees adventure and beauty in the cold, desolate country she now calls home. There are, however, warning signs that Vikram is not the kind, formal man he appeared to be while meeting her parents in India. Soon enough, she is longing for escape. With the birth of their son, Hemant, she is well and truly stuck in a bad situation, with no clear exit strategy.
The main action takes place when Hemant is seven and the Dharmas take on a tenant, Anu. Suddenly, Suman has someone to talk to. When Anu begins to suspect that all is not right in the Dharma household, Suman at first denies the other woman’s suspicions, before finally admitting that the physical abuse she suffers is nothing compared to the emotional and psychic damage her husband inflicts. The only bright spot in Suman’s life is Hemant, but even he is withheld from her to an extent. Varsha, whom Badami very clearly depicts as unbalanced, has claimed little Hemant as her own, and despite their seven-year age difference, the two stick to each other like glue, shutting out Suman and anyone else who dares to try to get between them.
Varsha has been scarred emotionally and mentally, both by her mother’s abandonment and death, and by Vikram’s rages. She has inherited her father’s negative traits, and feels a sense of possession, rather than love, toward Suman and Hemant. Oddly, after fleshing out the character and giving her an air of intelligence – even defiance – Badami presents Suman as unrealistically naive and out of touch with Varsha’s true character, though she admits that her well-behaved stepdaughter makes her uneasy much of the time.
The two strongest characters are the youngest and the oldest. Hemant is heartbreaking. Badami imbues him with the earnestness one would expect from a seven-year-old, but his life experiences have rendered him fearful and unable to comprehend that his reality is not quite right. Though Varsha routinely abuses Hemant, it is not until the end of the book, when the extent of her deviance is revealed, that his unconditional idolatry begins to fall away.
Though Vikram’s elderly mother, Akka, doesn’t take a turn as narrator (chapters are voiced by Varsha, Suman, Hemant, and Anu), her story is related with more gusto than any of the others. Having endured the abuse of her husband, Mr. J.K. Dharma (he is always “Mr. J.K. Dharma”), whom she blames for settling in Canada and picking a desolate “hell” of a location for a house, Akka is the first to condemn her son’s actions. She urges Suman to leave, offering up her paltry savings and a gold necklace to assist her daughter-in-law in her flight. Akka is paradoxically wise and superstitious, blaming both bad genes and curses for her husband and son’s abusive personalities.
The recounting of the early death of Akka’s detested drunkard of a husband – by hypothermia on their doorstep, ostensibly while she slept soundly inside – is told with relish, providing a macabre element of comic relief in an otherwise bleak story. It also serves as a rather obvious foreshadowing of the events leading up to Anu’s death under similar circumstances, and indeed runs like a current throughout.
This obviousness is the main issue: there is very little suspense or urgency in the story. Anu is discovered in a snowbank steps from the Dharma house. How she ended up there is not revealed until the closing chapters, though any astute reader will see where the story is going well in advance. This undermines what would otherwise be a well-crafted portrayal of a family in shambles, and an accurate, if stereotypical, portrait of abuse.
Reviewed by Dory Cerny (from the December 2011 issue)