Monday, August 9, 2010

'Bollywood in a Book'

I would argue that a growing number of Indian authors based in America write the same Indian novel: families move between countries, immigration sparks generational confusion, offspring lose their traditional foundations, and so on. But not every author feels the need to explore the Indian’s loss of self while pursuing the American dream. Ask Vinita, the bold and passionate protagonist of Shobhan Bantwal’s THE UNEXPECTED SON what she thinks of such literature, and she might respond, as she does to the notion of arranged marriage:

“Different day. Different man. Different attire. Same damn agenda.”

Bantwal’s agenda, quite simply, is “Bollywood in a Book.” She spins a tale of pasts, presents and futures that she deftly narrates as a horrified mother, a hurt husband, a carefree college student, a rising politician—to name a few. While Vinita is “teetering on the cusp of adolescence, tumbling into womanhood,” her family, friends and hometown are navigating obstacles of their own. By the end of the book, the reader wonders which son Bantwal is referring to, since there are several, and each have their moments of unexpected clarity and calamity. Is it a character from the prologue? Is it someone in the last chapter?

Most of the story is set in fictional Palgaum, a conservative town squeezed on the border of two states, making it an inflammable hybrid of Kannada and Marathi communities, as so many border towns in India are. Unlike Bombay, “a cross between Hollywood and New York city where…no one begrudged the other their lifestyle,” Palgaum is a hotbed for ethnic clashes between the two groups. Residents coexist along a spectrum of understanding that Bantwal alludes to: when Vinita first meets the notorious jock Som Kori, not from her community, she observes, “standing alone in the shadows with a man of his reputation was hazardous.” As the plot unfolds in 1970s India, the reader witnesses how disastrous the encounter is for family relationships, reputations and communal politics. Thousands of miles and decades after these two characters meet, in a quiet town in New Jersey dressed in dogwoods and azaleas, an anonymous letter for Vinita recreates in an instant the chaos she had left behind in Palgaum.

Bantwal’s clipped sentences and bite-sized paragraphs grow and meander as the characters become more familiar and the plot more intricate. The latter tends towards the fantastic and drawn-out nature of an Indian movie, with Bantwal covering all familial relationships when such elaboration is perhaps unnecessary. The former helps to ground the reader with a consistent depth of thought and action, from raw maternal instinct to the gentle love of arranged marriage. Having developed such diverse characters, Bantal could let their voices inform the reader about who is speaking in each chapter, a la William Faulkner’s SOUND AND THE FURY, but she is always explicit.

Pledging allegiance to Bollywood customs, Bantwal prolongs scenes between angry and shocked characters, applying frustratingly traditional mindsets as men make decisions and bark orders while the women accept their fate. A couple waits for their eldest child, a son, to return home to take charge of a prickly family situation. Bantwal showcases the characters’ close-mindedness even as the story moves into the 21st century and the reader wonders why thought has not evolved more. Have political, social and cultural conflicts been exaggerated for the sake of a Western audience? Similarly, she depicts heroes and villains as polar opposites, their interactions abrasive and emotional. However, if this is “Bollywood in a Book,” the end of the book and those long-awaited moments of closure are lacking.

Bantwal has taken Jhumpa Lahiri’s favorite story line of inter-cultural, inter-family displacement and made it more original. She does not shy away from plot and character embellishments, and just when another twist to the plot seems unmanageable, Bantwal shines a light at the end of the tunnel. Read THE UNEXPECTED SON to see how families come together even as communities fall apart.

Vinita develops as a teenager, woman, mother. Her “Mummy” is most affectionate when maternal instinct kicks in and her sister-in-law’s cheerfulness is a welcome voice of levity when Vinita’s life is sinking into helplessness. Girish believes in love at second sight and Vishal’s perennially raised voice hides a layer of compassion underneath.

Book: THE UNEXPECTED SON, by Shobhan Bantwal, Published by Kensington, 2010

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