On A Lyrical Traverse
In a season publishers reserve for their biggest releases, a remarkable second novel by the relatively unknown Rourkela-born Canadian writer Anita Rau Badami slipped into Indian bookstores, quietly and without fuss. Much like her restrained, profound narrative of how a Brahmin family living in genteel poverty in a fictional but very real small town in Tamil Nadu copes with the sudden death of a daughter and her Canadian husband, leaving them with a seven-year-old granddaughter they've never seen.
The heroes in The Hero's Walk are a very ordinary couple ("like a pair of bullock yoked together endlessly turning the water wheel round and round, eyes bent to the earth")âa 57-year-old grandfather, Sripati Rao, who makes a living writing jingles for toothpowder and incense and has a secret passion for penning elaborate letters to the editor, and his very practical ("like a bar of Lifebuoy soap") wife, Nirmala, who runs a dance school in her decrepit living room apart from a household of a grasping, thieving mother-in-law with a weakness for chewing gum, a 42-year-old spinster sister-in-law lusting after the milkman-turned-mla's son next door, a jobless son who spends his days trying to save the world and a seven-year-old struck mute by tragedy. In this breathless 359 page-turner, Badami addresses with skill, humour and tenderness one of the deepest preoccupations of any novelist: the beauty and randomness of existence and its acceptance. "I find it touchingly heroic to just see people living from the day they're born until the day they die, so full of hope," Badami told an interviewer when her book was first released in Canada a year ago. That reverence for the ordinary suffuses this novel with a rare lyricism as it takes the coupleâand the readerâthrough the whole gamut of emotions accompanying the death of a child: rage and recrimination, guilt, despair, futility and then, as softly, inevitably, as the break of dawn, the rebirth of love and hope.
The Hero's Walk ("A hero's walk," Nirmala tells her dance students, "is without vanity, and this is what sets him apart from the villain") has something else that's becoming even more rare among leading novelists: feeling. Badami's is a very Indian one at that.