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Hues Of Everydayness

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Just when one was about to give up on (most of) Indian fiction in English as being too clichéd, self-conscious and stereotyped, along came Tulsi Badrinath's Man Of A Thousand Chances. Set in contemporary urban India, it is a beautiful story of life in an Indian metropolis, characterised by its demands of tradition and modernity, made remarkable precisely because of the sheer ordinariness of the characters and the little moments that make up their lives.

Harihar Arora, son of a Marwari businessman settled in Chennai and Assistant to the Curator of the Madras Museum, is about to embark on one of the momentous events that mark the life of an Indian householder ? the marriage of his only daughter. Unfortunately, such an occasion calls for a specified number of ceremonies and an elaborate ritual of gift exchange, failure to comply with which would result in a significant loss of face; but compliance means huge expenditure, which Harihar cannot afford. A desperate Harihar decides on a daring and equally desperate plan: he steals—"borrows", rather—a rare, historical gold coin minted by the Emperor Jahangir and pawns it, with every intention of redeeming it at a later date, when money he had invested in a new fund reached maturity. However, when that day dawns—not before several disturbing revelations and nerve-wracking moments—the pawnbroker, who had himself been duped into "lending" the coin to a ruthless collector, informs Harihar that the coin had been melted for gold, in an attempt at some face—and reputation—saving of his own. A distraught Harihar, staring at certain disgrace and ruin and unsure of what to do next, decides to place his life in the capricious hands of fate, while pondering on the vagaries of life and the mysterious workings of karma.

Badrinath is certainly not the most skilful of writers ? while there are some lovely descriptions and memorable moments, there are several awkward turns of phrase and punctuation errors too. But what makes Man Of A Thousand Chances a good read is her gift of characterisation— every person in the story, even the most minor one, is sketched in loving detail. The very ordinariness of the characters makes them very real, and therefore immediately accessible and easily identified with. Badrinath's book is not set in some quaint village that exists only in the author's imagination; nor is she writing about beauty pageants or the lives of the jet-setting rich and the famous. Her book is about people like us, with worries and concerns and pleasures that are all too familiar, laced with a lot of sympathy and none of the condescension that one would find in the works of a less empathetic writer. She draws out the little, routine moments of everyday life—a cosy little family dinner, mother and daughter sitting together to admire the shine and dazzle of new clothes, annoying colleagues—in a way that makes even the mundane remarkable.

Any good work of fiction is marked by the attention it pays to the socio-geographic location in which the story is situated; in this novel, the city of Chennai comes alive, with its colours, smells, sights, bustle, problems, cuisine and idiosyncrasies. From the water problems plaguing the city's inhabitants, turning the arrival of the water tanker into a momentous event, brightened by the colour-coded vibrant buckets each household brings out especially for the occasion, to the noise, slush and cheerful activity of marketplaces, to the descriptions of hope and joy surrounding the yards of shimmering cloth in saree shops, to the crowded beaches on weekends—everything serves to make Chennai not just the backdrop, but an important part of the story, perhaps even the central character.

Of the other characters, perhaps the most endearing is Meeta, Harihar's beloved daughter. Her innocence and sweetness, and her joy at her impending wedding and new clothes, tempered in equal parts by fear and trepidation, are beautifully captured. Badrinath's characters are never black or white—Harihar himself is a male chauvinist of his times, and not averse to adultery if the opportunity presents itself; so while he evokes sympathy, his shoddy treatment of his wife, Sarla, also arouses intense irritation. She is possibly the most complex character in the book?an undercurrent of pain forms the sub-text of all the events in the Arora family, the pain surrounding the inexplicable disappearance of Harihar and Sarla's young teenage son Ratan. He is the invisible fourth member of the family, conspicuous by his very absence, informing every relationship, every thought, every action of his parents and sister. It is to Badrinath's credit that she never dramatises this heartbreaking episode in their lives, but allows it to stay in the background for the most part, as it possibly would in any real family.

For anyone with even a remote interest in history, the descriptions and discussions around coins, miniature paintings and sculptures in the Madras museum will be a pleasure to read. Explained at great length by the curator, Mahadevan, these episodes add to the reader's cache of knowledge. However, the chapter devoted to a discourse on karma and rebirth vs responsibility and accountability, designed to bring about clarity to Harihar's ethical and moral dilemmas, flags a bit. It's an interesting issue, no doubt, and one we have often wrestled with, but attention tends to falter when Mahadevan's monologue continues for a few pages without a break. And while Harihar's coming to terms with himself and his actions, and his changing equation with Sarla, seems a bit abrupt, the end, even though it seems to tilt on the side of fate, is satisfying enough.

The publishers would do well to invest in a copyeditor, though—even good books can lose their charm if commas in the wrong places make you cluck—as they make me— with annoyance and lose the thread. Because a good read this certainly is—Badrinath has pulled off the rare feat of painting a picture of the "real" India, complete with real characters, without resorting (much) to stereotypes.