Malgudi, Ayemenem, and now Chevathar
Chevathar village, an idyllic setting on the Coramandel coast, is where the history of modern India ebbs and flows in The House of Blue Mangoes. David J. Davidar's first novel, it begins in the last year of the 19th Century, with Solomon Dorai, the headman, trying to hold together the fraying ends of village life at a time of social and political unrest. NILANJANA ROY talks to Davidar on what has been called a promising debut of 2002. We also carry exclusive extracts from the book which is being released tomorrow in Delhi.
David Davidar ... a fictional universe that is both compelling and complete.
"I never realised that there was history, close at hand, beside my very own home."
THE first time David Davidar tried to write a novel, he demonstrated the shrewd judgment he would later exercise as the creator of the Penguin India imprint. He was in his twenties, experiencing angst in the big city; his book was about a young man in his twenties, experiencing angst in the big city. Davidar, wisely, refrained from ever publishing the book, sparing himself the kind of embarrassment that haunts all writers who went with the first draft instead of dumping it in the dustbin.
"Once I'd written my coming of age novel, I no longer had any desire to write a book. When I was in my early thirties, I started writing again. I think you have to be a certain age, you can only write certain books at certain times. That's what interested me when I read The Poisonwood Bible, that Barbara Kingsolver also had to wait a long time until she was ready to write that book," says Davidar.
The point of departure for him was a dying old man who stubbornly refused to die until Davidar had told his story. Daniel's story couldn't be told without his father, Solomon Dorai's story; neither of their stories was complete until the next generation had entered the frame. Ten years after that grumpy old man had knocked on the shoulder of Penguin India's CEO, Davidar finally finished The House of Blue Mangoes. "If I'd thought about writing a book this complex, this long, I would have sat down and had a drink and waited for the impulse to pass," he confesses now.
If he had, we'd have been spared the hype, for sure. The story, now familiar, of how Davidar sent the book off under an anagram of his middle name, to ensure that it didn't piggyback on his designation. Of how Vikram Seth read 200 pages and offered to edit the rest of the unwritten novel; of how the book has already sold in 11 countries and been hailed by trade publications as one of the most promising debuts of 2002. But we'd also have missed out on one of the most ambitious works of its time.
There is no such thing as a blue mango; no Chevathar Neelams ripen on the trees. A sprawling family settlement called Doraipuram, founded as India fought its way to Independence, never existed. You may search in vain for members of the Andavar, Vedhar and Marudhar castes. Aaron Dorai was not convicted of the murder of Robert William D'Escourt Ashe. Nowhere in South India does the Chevathar River debouch into the Indian Ocean, and the districts of Pulimed and Kilanad do not exist anywhere except on paper.
It's like saying that Malgudi is unreal, that Ayemenem never existed, that Macondo was never an actual dot on the map. With The House of Blue Mangoes, David Davidar has done what few authors and fewer debut novelists can hope to he's created a world entire, a fictional universe both compelling and complete.
In the beginning, Davidar had nothing but a list of questions. "As a Tamil who has not really lived in my home state for a while, though it's a very dear, very real presence to me, I wanted to figure out some things about it. That's why the book was fun for me: I was explaining things the caste system, the turn of the century, the Independence movement to myself. I had to try to understand so much, and in a different way from anything I'd read or seen in my past." It was the kind of illumination that Leacock talks about, this realisation that history was so close at hand, so very near to home.
History is the essence of innumerable biographies.
"I was interested in people at the edge of things. If you were at the edge of war today with Pakistan, how do you react as an ordinary person? Are you pulled out of yourself, do you put your head in the sand? I wanted to see what happens to people at the edge of the century, at the edge of change: do they become brittle, paranoid, react in strange ways?" says Davidar.
From 1899 through to 1947, The House of Blue Mangoes reflects history the way it happened to ordinary people. For Solomon Dorai, the towering headman of Chevathar, the weight of change threatens the age-old balance of the caste system. His strengths will protect him, but will also carry the seeds of his doom along with them as Chevathar moves inexorably into a bloody dance of violence. His younger son, Aaron, embraces the freedom movement the "big idea" of the age. For the eldest, Daniel, successful inventor of Dr. Dorai's Moonwhite Thylam ("Makes Your Face Shine Like the Pongal Moon!") Gandhi and the salt marches are off to a side, as he attempts to put his own big idea, the creation of a family settlement, into place. For Daniel's son, Kannan, history will sandbag him out of a pleasantly drifting existence as he grapples with questions of race and confronts his own colonisation. For the women in the novel, history is the backdrop against which their lives will be played out; for the Englishmen, history will either close a nostalgic chapter or bring to a welcome end the torment of being unwanted guests in a far country.
This is an epic of the personal, a celebration of the ordinary, and an excavation of the suppressed histories of the past. The twists and turns the freedom movement took in the South were as different from its course in the North as the course of Davidar's fictional Chevathar is from the Jamuna. Davidar makes all of us silent witnesses to this aspect of the past in what is almost a counterpoint to Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.
"It stemmed from an attempt to figure out my place in the scheme of things. What it means to be a Tamil, what it means to be a Tamil at various points of time. What did it mean to be an Indian at the time of the Raj? What did it mean to be an English person at the time of the Raj?"
Weaving in and out of the story of the Dorai family are all of these threads, these minor, but important, <147,1,0>stories from Father Ashworth, ineffectual fisher of men, to Helen, the Anglo-Indian woman battering tempestuously, but ineffectively, at the closed gates of memsahib society, to Charity Dorai, silent backbone of the clan, maker of a fish biryani of unsurpassed excellence.
The movement that Davidar had originally intended was village-small town-big city, though Kannan's story reached its natural conclusion before it reached the city. "If you look at a lot of our writers, they tend to have very urban concerns. I didn't want to write a book that was set in Bombay or Delhi and talked about servants and the lack of electricity. I remember remarking to a friend at a cocktail party that it struck me as odd: of this cosmopolitan audience, most are no more than three generations removed from a village."
"Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
To reconstruct the world of the Dorais, Davidar travelled, read ("probably a book for every paragraph"), mined the recesses of memory. Real life overlaps with the world of the novel only fleetingly. His grandfather had started a family settlement, if on a smaller scale than Daniel; Daniel's successful fairness cream was inspired by the medicinal balm that made another relative's fortunes; and Davidar drew on his memories as well as his father's recollections of plantation life to recreate Kannan's experiences as a young planter.
"But I had no interest in writing from real life. I think it just gets very messy. People get offended, either because they're not in it or because they feel misrepresented. I figured it was best to keep the family out of it."
That left room for scads of other things. The descriptions of sunbirds, the loving delineation of the topography of his fictional districts and the unconscious exactitude about the names of trees and plants are a hangover from Davidar's early training as a botanist. Like a display of Kanjeevarams, The House of Blue Mangoes exudes colour on every page. And like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, books that served as touchstones during Davidar's decade-long labour, The House of Blue Mangoes overflows with set-pieces and brilliant images. The lost art of well-jumping, an odyssey with the best mango in India as its objective, a Corbett-inspired episode starring a man-eating tiger these could be seen either as images natural to the story, or as floridly exotic elements.
Davidar reacts to the prospect of charges of exoticisation with resignation: "It worried me, it certainly worried me that I was looking at something like mangoes but then the park I walk in has peacocks all over the place. Man-eating tigers were found in plantations when I was a child. If you deliberately go backwards and want to write about weeping housewives in bad marriages, because you want to stay out of exoticising India, I think that's as much of a straitjacket. I'm writing about my everyday reality, the everyday reality of the characters in my book mangoes and well-jumping were part of that reality. I was deliberately writing for an Indian audience."
The process has changed him irrevocably. In an earlier conversation, Davidar departed from his usual detachment, displaying a rare moment of emotion as he talked about the actual act of writing. "It's so HARD!" he had said then, with a sense of some surprise. His views haven't changed at all: "It's gang labour," he says, even as he insists in another breath: "It demanded to be written I had to write the book."
As an editor, too, he's emerged with more empathy for the authors he deals with as part of his everyday life. "It taught me how to deal with authors much more than 15 years as a publisher had. What I knew in theory, I now know in practice." He's more confident about suggesting improvements and revisions, after having trimmed his own book by almost a third and cutting out the authorial voice altogether. "I've never had a problem with the best writers," he says, unconsciously lumping himself with that crowd. "They're always looking for ways to improve their work. It's those who're insecure about their work who spend a lot of time on defending themselves."
This is perhaps the best time to catch Davidar after the book, but before the grind of publicity and the reviews come out. More than most debut novelists, though, he's insulated himself against possible criticism. "I've shown it to the people whose opinions I value," he comments, "about 50 people around the world have read it, and there's a limit to how much more I can take on board." He's already slipping back into his more familiar avatar as Penguin CEO unlike most of his peers, he won't be crisscrossing continents and has already had to decline invitations to several international book fairs because of the pressure of work. "One week per continent, that's my schedule for book tours. And that's it."
Even as he waits for the verdict on his first book, the second, a contemporary novel, is on the anvil. "Two things dominate India, caste and religion," he says, "The House of Blue Mangoes made me work hard to understand caste. Now there's the present political situation. If you don't write about it, you've surrendered the flame to someone whose views are almost repugnant."
Davidar wrote most of his first novel in the early hours of the morning, thanks to his wife's insistence ("Rachna kicked me out of bed every day and said, off you go"). Rachna Singh's going to be waking up early for the next few years. Some things don't change.
Extracts from "The House of Blue Mangoes"
"DO you really believe the Chevathar Neelam is the best mango in the world?" Daniel asked Ramdoss.
"I believe it's the best I've eaten."
"I wonder what makes it so remarkable," Daniel said thoughtfully.
"Could it be the soil?"
"Probably. But certainly there was some grafting done a long time ago."
It was the summer of Daniel's second year in Doraipuram and Ramdoss and he were supervising the harvest of blue mangoes. It was four in the morning, the time at which the Chevathar Neelams were traditionally picked to ensure their sweetness was retained, and that they ripened evenly.
"I'd like to decide for myself," Daniel said abruptly.
"Decide what?" Ramdoss asked.
"That the Chevathar Neelam is the best mango in the world."
* * *
He was as good as his word. The great mango yatra began in Kerala, where Daniel, Ramdoss and the four gardeners who made up the party, tasted the Ollour, a fruit with thick yellow skin and flesh, and a faintly resinous after-taste. It was a fruit they were all familiar with, as it was found in the bazaars of Nagercoil and Meenakshikoil.
As summer progressed, dozens of varieties of mangoes began to ripen. The group from Doraipuram trailed through the fruit markets of the south, making the acquaintance of many well-known mangoes such as the regal Jehangiri, named for an emperor, the Banganapalli with its sweet pale whitish-yellow pulp, and the rare and delicious Himayuddin with a taste in the upper registers of the palate. In the fruit markets of Madura, they ate Rumanis round as cricket balls and so thin-skinned a baby could peel them, Mulgoas so enormous that they often tipped the scales at three kilograms and the highly prized Cherukurasam.
Then they had to hurry west, for the fruiting season of the Alphonso was at its peak.
* * *
They had one other major mango-growing region to visit before the long journey home. Daniel had heard a lot about the Malihabadi Dussehri, and when he tasted it, he was quick to accept it claims to greatness. But he discovered that its claim to being the finest mango in the country was by no means secure, for there were those who would bestow that honour on the Langda, which according to legend was first grown by a lame fakir from the holy city of Benaras. When Daniel encountered it, he was overwhelmed by its qualities the pale green skin, the orange-yellow flesh and above all the taste: a distinctive sweetness balanced by a slight tartness. They decided not to wait for the late-fruiting Chausa to arrive in the markets and Ramdoss managed to persuade Daniel to abandon his plans to visit Lahore and Rangoon and they took the train home. On the way back Daniel discussed the dozens of varieties they had tasted. He referred to the notes he'd made, he recalled their distinctive qualities, and he tried as fairly as he could to determine the greatest mango he had encountered in the course of his yatra.
A week after he'd returned to Doraipuram he still couldn't pick the winner. That evening, when he and Ramdoss took their daily walk, he said, "You know, Ramu, we've spent months trying to find out whether the Chevathar Neelam is finer than any other mango."
"Yes," Ramdoss said cautiously. But Daniel didn't pick up the conversation for he was lost in a reverie. He saw himself reach up to pick a Chevathar Neelam from his father's orchard, the fruit invested with the golden light of the sun. He tore at the warm fragrant skin with his teeth, then bit down into the flesh, the nectar running in yellow rivulets down his face, neck, even the arms, its unmatched flavour overwhelming him. "Ramu," Daniel said slowly, "we went a long way to know what I've always known. There's no question that the Chevathar Neelam is the greatest mango in the world." Then, to Ramdoss's disquiet, he added, "Now that we know that, we need to proclaim its glories far and wide."
The House of Blue Mangoes,
David J. Davidar, Viking Penguin India (Weidenfield and Nicholson), p.421, Rs. 395.
The writer is Contributing Editor, Man's World, and a columnist and book critic based in Delhi.
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