Saturday, 24 April 2010

Book Review: Maria’s Room by Shreekumar Varma

Raja Prasad, the protagonist of Maria’s Room, is one of the most extra-ordinary lead-characters I have ever met in an Indian novel. He is tall and gangly and uncomfortable in his skin. However, everybody likes him or rather they all adore him. His father dotes on him and worries about his lack of hedonism. ‘My son is a saint,’ he wails in despair. Raja is at times irritated by his father’s nagging concern for him, but he manages to do what he wants to, without offending his successful businessman father. Wherever Raja goes, he finds people willing and happy to take care of him. Raja is a teetotaller and avoids any form of intoxication, which is not very easy when the novel is set in Goa and the smell of feni hangs heavily in the air. Raja is also a vegetarian, but is surrounded by meat-eaters in a monsoon ridden Goa. None of this makes Raja uncomfortable. Rather, he takes his boozing, carnivorous companions in his stride. Not once do we see Raja enjoy a meal in the entire novel, but again, not once do we see him yearn for a good vegetarian meal, though he is shown to be a fussy eater.

Just as one begins to write Raja Prasad off as a sissy, he gets the best of another man, this one a toughie, in a knife fight. Shortly thereafter, he also gets Lorna. A while later, we get to know of the woman in Prasad’s past life. All of this might give the impression that Shreekumar Varma’s character contradicts himself. Far from that, because Varma is such a splendid writer who effortlessly brings to his readers the sights, sounds and smells of a rainy Goa, Raja Prasad appears to be a very believable character, one who forces the reader to worry about him.

Maria’s Room is a ghost story. It is also a crime thriller. Narrated almost entirely in the first person, the reader gets to grips with Maria’s story, her room and her presence at the same time as Raja Prasad, the narrator. In other words, very slowly. It’s not that Varma doesn’t drop hints and clues almost from the beginning of this three hundred page tome. Even before Varma takes you past page forty, Raja Prasad hears the words ‘Maria, is it you girl?’ as he is about to slip back into sleep. The words sound like a ‘flare in the dark’.

It’s not just a solitary ‘flare in the dark’. Varma litters his very literary work with such similes and other word plays. A receptionist has ‘dancing piano fingers’, someone resembles a ‘forlorn peering vulture’ and a mobile is shaken ‘like a faulty thermometer'. Varma is so comfortable and confident with his English, which at times reminded me of R K Narayan, that even when some of the characters speak exclusively in Goan slang ‘only’, the language on the whole sounds very ‘propah’. In a way, Maria’s Room reminded me of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, but Varma nowhere goes to the extent Chandra did in Sacred Games, which from what I recollect, had at least one tenth of its text in Mumbai slang.

Maria’s Room is no Tequila shot which will hit its readers in the gut as the book ends. Rather, it can be described as a very good single malt whiskey, one which goes down very well, smooth as silk, without any serious exclamations or jolts or hiccups on the way. It is not that Maria’s Room doesn’t have any mystery or surprise in it. It does and it is only the last dozen pages that Varma rewards his readers with answers, but one doesn’t sit up with a jerk when the tube light finally shines through. No, rather, one merely closes the book with the same satisfaction as when one has finished an excellent drink which was just as good in the beginning as it was towards the end.

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