June 26, 2020
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Central Lighting

A lively flame of black humour reinvents the familiar Indian domestic farce, adding depth and pathos

Central Lighting
Family Values
By Abha Dawesar
Penguin Pages: 296; Rs. 325
By comparison to Abha Dawesar’s first two novels, bristling with sexually explicit passages, the current book is practically bucolic. The story centres upon the fragile, precocious young son of a pair of doctors. From his perspective, trapped within a tiny home-cum-clinic, we watch the familiar Indian domestic farce, starring the dastardly cousin, malicious neighbour, overbearing patriarch and the anxious bride-to-be. But a lively flame of black humour reinvents the medium, adding depth and pathos to an otherwise commonplace tale.

The boy is realised with tremendous sympathy. We suffer with him through his humiliations at school, his bouts of malaria, the misery of his cramped horizons and his victimisation by older relatives. The fact that he prevails despite being small and weak is a key to the writer’s social concerns, as she weaves in some of Delhi’s most sensational crime stories as background detail. Neither the city nor its citizens are named: instead, all the characters have generic titles, based on their professions and connection to the Boy. This simple device universalises the story, allowing us to see beyond particular communities and parochial obsessions.

Dawesar’s achievements are impressive: a Harvard graduate living in New York, she has produced four novels in nine years and has collected a string of international honours in addition to being an artist working in film, paint and ink. As a writer, her voice is firm and her gaze unflinching. I look forward to what she’ll show us next.

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