Wednesday, 5 April 2006

Book Review : Ravan and Eddie by Kiran Nagarkar

I met the author, Kiran Nagarkar, recently and since he seemed like an interesting person, I thought it might be worthwhile to read the book.

Ravan and Eddie is a reasonably hilarious story about Ravan, a Maratha Hindu and Eddie, a Roman Catholic, growing up to adolescence on different floors of the Central Works Department chawl no. 17 in Bombay.

Having never before been inside a Chawl, inspite of seeing plenty from the outside, this book seemed the ideal vehicle to be transported into a place I had never been before. Or at least that's what the blurb said.

The story starts off when Eddie is not yet born and Ravan is barely a year old. Eddie's father, Victor, tries to catch the eye of Ravan's mother, Parvathi, by gurgling at Ram. The thirteen month-old child, Ram, is so excited that he leaps towards Victor standing four floors below. Victor manages to save Ram but dies on the spot. This changes the entire life of Violet the new widow who is pregnant with Eddie at the time. Parvathi promptly renames her son Ravan, to keep the evil eye from falling on her cherub. All this happens in the first 5 pages and the remaining three hundred and twenty-five move as quickly.

The author then follows both children through the twists and turns of their growing up: the pleasure, the pain, the horror, the angst, the guilt, the questions ...

Eddie and Ravan are kept apart by a multitude of barriers - not least among them being that Ravan murdered Eddie's father as Violet will never let anyone forget. Other differences crop up from belonging to different religions, living on different floors, speaking different languages, attending different schools. But by a strange twist of fate, Eddie the catholic boy joins a Sabha and Ravan the Hindu boy joins Tae-Kwon-Do classes conducted by Mr. Billmoria.

Their lives run parallel to each other. Both experience an epiphany of sorts when Ravan watches Dil Dekke Dekko and Eddie watches Rock Around the Clock. One gets involved in black marketeering and the other starts receiving contracts to kill.

Kiran Nagarkar confesses upfront that he has a tendency to rat on his own earnestness with something farcial, bawdy or self-deprecatory. If you can handle that, you will love the book.

With the mill lands being sold off for Commercial gains, the only way we may know of Chawls and life in them will be through books like Ravan and Eddie.

Nagarkar breaks off in between the narrative to give the reader a "Harangue on Poverty", "a Digression on Afghan Snow", the "Great Water Wars", a "Meditation on Neighbours", the "History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films", and the "Shortest Survey ever of the Portugese Advanture in the Old World".

The "Meditation on Neighbours" is absolutely brilliant, even as a stand alone piece of writing. It elaborates on some elementary or critical differences between the Catholics and Hindus living in the chawls. The book is worth buying just to read this elaboration.

The language is simple, interspersed with a little Marathi and Hindi. The story line is quite easy to follow as it switches between Ravan's and Eddie's stories. In between, we are introduced to a lot of other characters like Pieta, Violet, Granna, Parvati, Shobhan, Lele Guruji, Prakash, Father D'souza. Each of these characters is more than a bystander and Nagarkar has done justice in giving each one of them layered dimensions.

The book is a very incisive look at life in the Chawls. It covers a gamut of subjects. Out-of-work husbands, the caste system, the other woman, start of the water wars, sexual abuse.... But Nagarkar's style is such that you don't ever feel that he is trying too hard to cramp everything together and say as much as possible within a word limit.

I am looking forward to buying and reading Cuckold and Seven Sixes Are Forty Three. Then maybe I can try to get my hands on his plays and screenplays.

About the Author :

Kiran Nagarkar was born in Mumbai. He wrote his first book in a language in which he had never written before - Marathi. The book was called Saat Sakkam Trechalis, recently translated as Seven Sixes are Forty-Three, and is considered a landmark in post-independence Indian literature. His novel in English, Ravan and Eddie, acclaimed as a literary bestseller, has been translated into Marathi. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Cuckold

Read an Interview with the Author Kiran Nagarkar here.

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