The little engine that tried

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Anand Mahadevan’s engaging debut novel got derailed, says Jai Arjun Singh

TRAINS ARE a central motif of Anand Mahadevan’s debut novel, set mostly between Nagpur and Madras in the mid 1980s. Its prologue, fittingly titled “Asai (Desire)”, introduces us to the young protagonist Hari — the son of a railway engineer — who wants nothing more than to ride in a train engine. Towards the end of the book, this wish will find morbid fulfilment, but in between is a nicely paced coming-of-age story.

Up to the halfway point, The Strike is a book of engaging vignettes: a grandmother dies in tragi-comic circumstances, an orthodox family must accept an American daughter-in-law, there is a confrontation with language militants who want Hindi-speakers out of their state. The cold metal of railway tracks, the thick fabric of connecting gangways and the electric poles running parallel to the train — all seen through the fascinated eyes of a 12-year-old. But there is also the idea of a train as a cocoon, into which the divisions of the outside world rarely impinge. It’s easy to see why this is reassuring for Hari, who is more fluent in Hindi than in his mother tongue Tamil, his time in central India having left him unmoored.

Mahadevan is good at capturing the more fearful aspects of a precocious child’s world, including growing sexual awareness (as manifested in the threatening sexuality of older women who become uninhibited during Holi celebrations, the meagrely dressed Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, the playmate who seems to have matured overnight and an attractive young actor on a train). There are depictions of patronising adult hegemony when a tradition is questioned (if the Ganga purifies everything it touches, why should a Brahmin be forbidden from eating the fish that live in it, Hari asks) and an understanding of how the smallest misstep can beget disproportionate guilt in a child, making it seem like the whole world is looking at him accusingly.

Unfortunately, when the Tamil Express carrying Hari and his mother to Madras is brought to a halt by protestors mourning the death of the the legendary actorturned- chief minister MGR, the narrative enter a period of stasis too. We can tell that something bad is about to happen, but the book never quite summons the urgency; instead it slowly drifts away from Hari’s engaging perspective, a decision that dilutes the final quarter of the story.

As The Strike judders to a halt, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the book lost a thread somewhere along the way. This isn’t an unworthy debut by any means, but it could have been more focused.

 

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