Set in a small seaside town in southern India, this novel introduces a Brahman family living a diminished, but genteel lifestyle in a crumbling mansion. The father and patriarch of the family is named Sripathi and is in his early sixties. The author introduces him as he is indulging in a passion for creative writing with the sounds of town life tumbling in his windows. In this introductory scene he is writing a letter to a newspaper under a pseudonym. We soon learn he always wanted to be a journalist but his mother expected him to become a medical doctor. He disappointed her and dropped out of medical school. Eventually he was employed writing advertising for a small company owned by a friend of the family. Writing letters to the editor is just a way to satisfy a longing to do something creative. The other members of the family also invent coping strategies of their own to deal with life’s disappointments. Sripathi’s wife, Nirmala quietly runs the household doing much of the daily domestic work but teaches dancing in the family sitting room to earn a little income. His middle aged sister Putti, dreams of marrying and having her own independent household and leans over her balcony sending lovelorn signals to the bachelor next door, a man of a lower caste suspected of being a criminal. At the same time Ammayya, Sripathi’s mother wanders around the house desperately clinging to old, disappearing values showing her frustration with the modern world by indulging in angry tirades and sometimes stealing other people’s valuables. There is also a son named Arun; a student more interested in political protest than pursuing his studies. Finally there is Maya, the beloved, golden daughter who went to study in America but who refused to agree to an arranged marriage with a young man from a wealthy Indian family. Instead, she followed her heart and married a Canadian from Vancouver. Sripathi was so embittered by Maya’s rejection of what he thought was a brilliant marriage he severed all family connections with her. Maya’s mother, Nirmala brokenheartedly supported her husband in the severing of ties but prayed earnestly for a father daughter reconciliation especially after a little granddaughter is born. The opportunity to forgive and reconcile is lost forever when Maya and her husband are killed in a car accident. Sripathi, struggling with grief and remorse travelled to Canada to bring, seven-year-old Nandami back to live with the Indian family she did not know. Nandami is traumatized by these events and stops talking, rendered mute by the shock of loosing both her parents and her home.
This could have become a maudlin, sentimental melodrama but the author has kept it fresh and down to earth with compassion and humour. It is a story that offers insight into the forces of change rippling through everyday life in India. The family house Sripathi has inherited is mildewed and crumbling and so are many of the old mores and traditions in his town. However, family love proves stronger than the material world. The spread of popular culture, social media and socio economic change in general causes upheaval within this village like a cultural earthquake shaking up everything in the way of change. Sripathi lives with the pain of not having reconciled with his daughter before her sudden death but forgives himself enough to eventually find joy in watching his little grandchild grow and heal after the terrible loss of her parents. The reader who is looking on with the same view as the omniscient narrator can see that Maya was given an excellent liberal education where she excelled and learned all the skills of an independent thinker. Thus, in following a path of her own creation it is not surprising her plans would not be the same as her parents. Her father chose to sacrifice his dream of becoming a writer in order to stay close to his family but lives with the lingering sadness over the road not taken. He never comes to terms with the contradictory notion of raising a daughter to be strong and independently minded who then pursues a future that did not include the expectations of her parents.
The title, The Hero’s Walk, is never clearly explained. A reference is made during one of Nirmala’s dance classes to a dance step of the same name that represents a story out of Hindu mythology. She teaches traditional dance and it seems even the old dance arts must adapt to the new era as they are taught for pleasure and novelty rather than to teach religious values or as part of a sacred festival. If heroism is synonymous with bravery that has it’s origins in love and compassion then this shows how all of them must walk like heros even while living an ordinary life as an ordinary family in a small town in India.
This novel has a lush texture that evokes a town on the edge of the ocean enduring the summer heat by catching every cooling breath that drifts across the sea. The seasonal humidity settles oppressively and then breaks into the warm rains that relentlessly hammer into the streets and on the rooftops. It is amazing to me how as a reader I could be transported so immediately to this heavily scented tropical climate. It was almost a virtual holiday as I read The Hero’s Walk in the midst of a cold, Canadian winter. Perhaps I was more open to its imaginings because winter seemed particularly harsh this year.
The author’s special talent is her ability to enter the thoughts and feelings of her characters. It allowed the reader to get close to all these individuals making them more real than fictional. The reader even feels sympathy for the ill tempered grandmother, Ammayya who stamps around the house disrupting domestic harmony by stealing or destroying other peoples possessions just to vent her frustration with the fact that she did not have the marriage or the status that she was promised and to which she felt entitled as a young girl from a respected Brahman family. To get inside the hearts of so many characters is a remarkable accomplishment. It is so much easier to write about one main character interacting with a collection of minor ones. Here the author has created a complex mosaic (overused metaphor but apt) of players whose actions we readers can sometimes deplore but which we can understand with empathy.
This is a very readable novel.