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Moving Tale of Love and Betrayal

B. Mangalam

By Ameen Merchant
HarperCollins, Delhi, 2008, pp. 452, Rs. 395.00


Ameen Merchant's debut novel gently tugs at the reader's heartstrings, stirring one's compassion for the two sisters torn apart by varying compulsions that engulf their life in a middle class agraharam (Brahmins' colony) in a provincial town in Tamil Nadu. The story is a simple one (almost typical of many 1970s Tamil novels) that charts the path of the two daughters of Venkatakrishnan, a bank official, in a nondescript town close to Madras. The elder daughter, Janaki, is taken off the school when she is hardly 12 following her mother's death in a bus accident and is forced to take over the household chores by her father – a typical Tamil Brahmin male who wants his three meals at the ordained time and shies away from domestic responsibilities, a strict disciplinarian towards his daughters and a thorough hypocrite in his personal, moral conduct.   Janaki excels in playing the veena and her mastery over it ultimately helps her to carve a life of her own away from the restrictive, confining environs of the agraharam and the stifling patriarchal, dowry-ridden marriage market patronized by her father and aunt. The anguish and trauma borne by her younger sister Mallika following Janaki's elopement forms the core of the novel. The two sisters meet and reconcile after a decade of separation and the novel beautifully graphs their bond, the fissures in the bond and the sustained common love for their mother and the years of growing up which help in healing the rupture that seemed an eternal one.   The elopement is a classic time-tested and a successful strategy in Tamil fiction, particularly congenial to an ethos steeped in an obsessive clamour for purity, chastity and caste exclusivity. It is also a glaringly melodramatic and sensational strategy but what is Tamil fiction of the 70s and 80s if not a successful combo of melodrama and a normalizing of the fantastic?   Ameen Merchant walks a tightrope (and to be fair, does it with flair) when he borrows the Tamil fiction format of the 1970s and 80s (the focused attention on Brahmin community – its language, its culture, its claustrophobic domesticity, its poverty, its pathos in its inability to marry off its young, talented but school- dropout daughters on account of 'unreasonable' dowry demands and a melodramatic subversion of the system by a scandalous elopement of the 'good' daughter with a 'good match but bad caste' boy) but chooses to focus ...

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