Title: The House of Blue Mangoes
Author: David Davidar
Publisher: Harper Perennial
First Published: 2001
There are two angles I'd like to take when writing about this book.
The book as an experience
As an experience this book satisfies the Tamil whim in me in every which way. The descriptions, the names, the settings, the conflicts - every single aspect of what I can only define as mann vaasanai (the raw smell of the earth) hits the marks effortlessly. Considering just that, I'd give five stars to this book anyday. Kudos to Davidar for having retained the terms in Tamil, infusing them into the dialogue, allowing you to make the book your own, revel in the atmosphere it creates. What Kannan feels when he finally returns to Chevathar, I felt as an essence from cover to cover. Its a rewarding experience and nothing short.
The book as a novel
As a novel, the book has gaping holes. It begins with brilliant flair, Davidar has a strong knack at painting pictures that automatically hook you right in. The first part of the book, Chevathar reads like the formulaic plot of a Tamil naatamai (village leader) movie. If you are a Tamilian you will know the elements by-heart. But, Davidar writes convincingly. You understand and sympathise with Solomon Dorai for all the pain that goes into administering his motley village and even the violence you can take in stride if not condone.
Where the book fails, in my opinion, is taking off from where Chevathar ends. While mapping Aaron and Daniel's lives, there are too many elements coming into play, so all the 'showing' from the 1st part becomes outright 'telling'. Aaron and Daniel don't grow in front of your eyes, you are told they've grown up like that, so you can't quite relate to them, especially not when there's an illogical making-up happening between two brothers who loathed each other for life. The weakest character development was that of the senior Daniel. Perhaps, Ramadoss should've been given a voice and Daniel's story told from his eyes. Doraipuram as a section failed to impress.
Which brings us to Pulimed, again a disappointment. While Kannan as a character had strong potential (there are obvious conflicts here, Daniel tries not to put pressure on Kannan like Solomon did with him, yet there are grey areas) he is not used to his fullest capacity against his father, against his family. The boy does not have a strong need to get away from his family (the push), which logically he must do, go through the process so that he can come back home again (the pull.) Kannan's story runs off swiftly, none of the underlying emotions exposed. It was like watching a character's progression in fast-forward motion, or within the space of a single song as happens in a typical Tamil movie.
And aside from all of this there's the Indian War of Independence as another layer, one we are told to ignore because Daniel does not like politics and hence Kannan doesn't either. Yet, the British identity conflict forms the basis of Kannan finding his place. This doesn't quite tie up. Usually when your lead characters don't care about something, you tend to not care too, so Freddie and the laddies and that goddamn Mrs.Stevenson (who ironically gets two chapters of character development when so many other characters could've used some!) don't bother you too much except as a bunch to be tolerated.
And what's with the tiger? I understand the need for an analogy to denote a character coming to a take-off point to hunt for a deeper inner meaning (Aaron had his well. Daniel had his first leech patient.) but this was just not quite enough because Kannan just whined through the whole thing.
If there's one conflict-freedom-identity based movie that Tamilians love, it is Devar Magan; The book follows a similar plot. The movie with its honest plot and haunting performances left a mark for eternity on our hearts. The only part in this book that comes close to achieving that is the 1st section. But just so. If only a few critical plot points and characters could've been put to better use. (starting with that blasted Vakkeel Perumal!) The book loses its way after Chevathar. But Chevathar was brilliant.
Brilliant as an experience