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The Hero’s Walk

by Anita Rau Badami

A heavy heat hangs over The Hero’s Walk, Anita Rau Badami’s follow-up to her successful debut, Tamarind Mem. Toturpuram, in India, shimmers under the oppressive heat of an unusually long pre-monsoon season, while Sripathi Rao, stunted patriarch of a stunted family, longs for the rains to come. Rao writes advertising copy, instead of the newspaper stories he imagined in his youth; his son is an activist in tattered clothes, instead of a head-of-the-family in waiting; his daughter Maya married a Canadian, instead of the nice Indian boy to whom she was engaged, and fled to far-away Vancouver. When Maya dies in a car crash – along with her husband, leaving their seven-year-old daughter Nandana in need of the extended family she’s never met – Rao’s world, precarious to begin with, crumbles. Somehow, he must find a way to forgive Maya, and himself, to allow his family to heal.

Badami writes unflinchingly about a man both disappointed and disappointing. In her capable hands Rao is stubborn and a little petty, selfish but not hateful, lost but not for good – in short, he is entirely human, and vividly rendered. So are those around him, from his thug of a next-door neighbour to his silent, fearful grandchild, who is determined to get back to Canada, even if she has to walk all the way.

This is Badami’s talent for storytelling: she imbues every sentence with compassion. Though Rao is in distress through no one’s fault but his own, Badami’s affection for her character keeps him from becoming permanently mired in his dissolute life. Her easy way with narrative weaves a rich and textured history, and she holds its various strands just taut enough, lightening and darkening the Rao family fortunes, until her readers long, as avidly as Rao, for the monsoon to bring relief. The relief comes all at once, in a stormy unravelling of events. Even here, Badami exercises control – playing out the consequences a little at a time, and then a little more. Badami may have made her name with Tamarind Mem, but it is The Hero’s Walk that will carry that name.