ONE CONSEQUENCE of the global attention focused on Indian English writing has been a kneejerk scepticism about the author’s intended audience. Does including a kathakali performance pander to Orientalism? Can only western naïveté appreciate lurid poverty? The debate stretches from content to form: should ‘halwai’ be italicised? Does describing his place of work as a ‘sweet shop’ make the sentence more suitable to a glossary than a novel? What, in the end, is so cringe-inducing about calling a roti ‘unleavened bread’?
In Family Values, Abha Dawesar doesn’t just tell a story with elegance. She also turns this game on its head.
Family Values, Dawesar’s fourth novel, is written exclusively in English. As an experiment, this is on par with, say, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, written without commas. So, though set amidst a large and fractious family, the novel has no ‘mama’s, no ‘chachi’s, no ‘bhaiyya’s; located obviously in Delhi, it names neither city nor country; it doesn’t even name the characters. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy — called ‘the boy’ — whose parents are “the doctors”, and relatives similarly identified: Sugar Mills and his son Flunkie Junkie, Paget married to Duffer, Self Sacrificing Sister (SSS), the slow uncle Poop, and so on. Sometimes, characters travel in a “three-wheeled vehicle”; a powerful politician from a northern state is named Elder Brother Goddess Red; and, yes, the boy’s cousin’s mother “makes him fresh bread on a griddle”. And, because Dawesar assumes knowledge, not ignorance, in her audience, it works.
The narrative — a sickly, sensitive boy watches his family and its contortions — is almost incidental to the prose. Dawesar doesn’t flinch from detail — an ability that gave what might have been an anodyne coming-of-age story, Babyji, its powerful sexual charge. Here, given the narrative’s preoccupation with disease, the focus is more scatological; the writing often stunning. No more tender description of defecation may exist: “The boy, still waiting for his bowels to start moving, stares at the dull mosaic on the floor and tries to find a pattern that tells a story. He hears soft plopping sounds in the bowl beneath him. Emotionally exhausted from the stress of knowing that [the family’s] lives are now endangered by a drug addict — the boy knows they stop at nothing — and physically slack as his sphincter relaxes, the boy dozes off.”
This still beauty is somewhat marred by Dawesar’s excessive use of current events. Although the “man with a shock of white hair” involved in a defence scandal is cleverly fused into the narrative, one begins to tire as the headlines tumble past: a nursing home steals kidneys; at a Rich Lady’s party a model-bartender is shot; Killer and his Man Friday dismember slum children.
Such referencing might work on a larger canvas; Family Values isn’t that. It is unflinchingly, claustrophobically, intimate, and excels at letting its silent protagonist explore every cobwebbed corner of his small world.