by Anjali Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate
review by Grace Read
Daily life has never been so captivating. Anjali Joseph guides her reader into the secrets and aspirations of her characters. Ashish moves to live with his uncle Mohan and aunt Lakshmi to retake his final year at college and a beautiful, painful and understated sequence of events unfold.
Ashish and Mohan are opposites. Ashish, 19 years old, is bored and ‘so tired of life he want[s] to cry, quietly, with his face buried in a soft cloth’, whereas his uncle Mohan, in his middle age, is ‘someone for whom each detail of life had its own significance, revelatory as though it had been a clue in a cosmic detective story’.
Something beautiful happens when Ashish begins to interact with his uncle. Ashish seems to reignite his uncle’s latent passion for writing. Joseph describes Mohan’s ‘face triumphant and eyes bright’ as he digs out an old newspaper cutting of his published writing to show Ashish. Mohan re-realises his dream to write and re-evaluates his writing heritage from his father. He enjoys reminiscing to himself about his childhood, and these moments carry the reader away into Mohan’s youth and we learn that Mohan is a dreamer, living in his own world.
When we meet Ashish it is clear he has a history that his move to his aunt and uncle’s house isn’t going to erase. He is devoid of care for most things. He doesn’t miss his parents; he has no interest in his college course. His mind is almost solely focussed on sex and he is described as ‘hollow-eyed…exhausted and appalled, like a child born too early’. What a fascinating character!
We follow Ashish through a difficult year at college and experience his love and his loss. Remarkably, Joseph portrays these powerful experiences in such a way that the reader is overcome with empathy, while Ashish remains detached. It is only in the last few pages that Ashish actually experiences some intense emotions; the same point at which he is finally able to escape his history.
Parallel to Ashish’s tumultuous adventure, Mohan and Lakshmi quietly and painfully discover the distance that has grown between them in marriage. The silence, the TV watching, the mundane routine. I felt like I was intruding on Mohan and Lakshmi as I witnessed their discovery and recovery of their broken marriage. Joseph has a detailed eye for the quiet, unseen interactions between people; those moments which elicit deep emotions and strong reactions, but which often cannot be described.
Saraswati Park is unique in many ways, not least for being a female writer’s portrayal of male desires. So male is the narrative that Mohan’s wife is frequently referred to as ‘His wife’, rather than by her name. This clearly represents the distance between the couple, and perhaps the boredom Lakshmi feels. In fact, when she leaves Mohan to visit her family, her presence in the house seems to be adequately replaced by her cardigan, hanging over the back of a chair.
It is also unique for making the ordinary fascinating. Joseph uses some beautiful phrasing and interpretations of the ordinary. One of my favourites is this description of getting out of bed ‘He extricated himself from the cotton sheet, which seemed to have become needy during the night’.
Joseph switches between third person narrative perspectives seamlessly, allowing her two central characters the space to develop independently of each other in the same time and space.
Saraswati Park itself (a residential area on the outskirts of Bombay) is almost a character in its own right, but not quite. There are hints at its decay and renewal and its distance from the centre of the city. It is a place where Sunday mornings are a time for relaxation; ‘time to live’, and the birdsong is always prominent. It seems both pleasant and claustrophobic; an uneasy setting for an uneasy tale.
Saraswati Park is about love and sexuality, aging, families merging and diverging, and grieving. Yet it is even more about being human, and living life in all its beautiful, painful glory.