Thursday, 26 January 2012

Book Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

The Marwari’s business acumen is legendary and the Todarmal family epitomises the typical, rich Marwari business family where every member of the family plays a role in the family business, which is headed by a shrewd and smart patriarch. However, the Todarmal family is a little bit different in one respect – it is headed by a matriarch, the formidable Bimla Kulbhushan Todarmal, aka Mummyji, who, at a time when the family was in crisis, not only conceived from scratch the mithai business, but also grew it to its present (in 1984) size and strength. Namita Deviayal’s Aftertaste revolves around the last few days of Mummyji, which happen to coincide with the Diwali of 1984 and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, with a lots of flashbacks. Mummyji has held the family together after Daddyji’s demise. Her eldest son Rajan Papa is weak and vacillating. Second son Sunny has his mother’s business acumen, but lacks the necessary human element. Eldest daughter Suman is fair, pretty and vain and wants her mother’s jewels. Saroj, the second daughter has suffered the most and is the most likeable, but even Saroj wants her mother to die, so that she can inherit her wealth.

Deviayal writes well, exceedingly well and her lyrical prose brings to the fore the Todarmal family’s love for wealth and how everything they do centres around the quest for money. Mummyji loves her children and grandson Rahul to death, but she seems to love her business and money even more. Without belittling anyone, Devidayal holds a mirror to this excessive love for money and the havoc it can wreak on relationships. The treatment of Saroj’s husband by his own family when he refuses to collaborate in a fraud, is a case in point.

There was one big fly-in-the-ointment for me in this splendid novel. There are a couple of references to chicken curry being eaten by members of the Todarmal family and a solitary reference to a breakfast of eggs. Granted, we have been told the Todarmals had settled in Punjab many generations ago, had adopted local (Punjabi) language, customs etc. and once in a while a lad is addressed as ‘puttar’, I still found the chicken curry difficult to digest. One does find Marwaris settled all over India, but one doesn’t hear of Marwaris turning non-vegetarian and eating chicken at the family dining table. Most of the time, Devidayal talks of the Todarmal children and Mummyji’s late husband Daddyji eating mithai by the kilo, along with other traditional Marwari staples such as kachoris, pooris, aloo parathas and the like. The two references to chicken curry caught me unawares and spoilt the atmosphere for me. A financially well-off carnivore in India wouldn’t eat meat once in a blue-moon - it would be eaten almost on a daily basis. If the Todarmals are non-vegetarian Marwaris who regularly eat chicken curry at home, the rest of Devidayal’s description of their culinary habits becomes grossly inaccurate.

I ought to reiterate that despite this hole, the story does hold up very well and drops the reader bang in the middle of the Todarmal household listening spellbound to a riveting tale narrated wonderfully well. Devidayal packs in a lot of detail regarding the mithai business. We are told that when the Todarmals started to make and sell mithai, Mummyji has strategically arranged for supplies of milk and sugar and ghee. We are told of Mummyji’s brilliant ideas for making barfi with Maggie and Bournvita, sweets shaped to meet Independence day and Holi themes, sweets in the shape of corporate logos, Sunny’s coup in getting varak, the silver foil used to garnish the mithai, made by a machine rather than the then prevalent ‘non-vegetarian’ method. However, I found certain important bits missing. As the business grows, one isn’t given details of how new employees are hired and managed. Except for a few references to a jalebi maker by the name Pooran, one doesn’t get a clear picture of how many employees the Todarmals have. Most importantly, there isn’t a single mention of the kitchens where the mithai is made. Is it a big central kitchen or many kitchens spread all over Bombay? Maybe it is a good thing Devidayal doesn’t get into such detail to indulge nitpickers like me – it might have spoilt the story.

Devidayal does the needful to bring in the 1980s effect. There are obligatory references to Binaca Geetmala, Gold Spot, Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, the 1971 war over Bangladesh and occasional discussions regarding Indira Gandhi and the troubles in Punjab. These are well done, but I didn’t really feel I had been transported to the 1980s. When Devidayal ends her brilliant novel, new elements are introduced to the Todarmal family – Rajan Papa befriends a Hindu fanatic who runs a Dharma Biradari, a group of upper middle-class and rich folks who do social work and meet on Sunday mornings for Bhajans and Breakfast; Grandson Rahul is a closet homosexual, to whom Mummyji has willed Cozy villa on condition that his inheritance will be only after his marriage.

At the end of it all, Aftertaste is a brilliant critique of the Todarmal’s excessive love for wealth. We are told that as the Todarmals gathered for the Diwali puja, ‘the goddess stood mute, watching the family with her ancient, painted marble eyes. How badly misunderstood she was yet again. Like her pet owl which doesn’t see during the day, these people were blind. She was not the goddess of wealth, but of well-being. She was the other side of Narayan, the god of right thinking and right action, but they worshipped only her, desperate, ignorant. .......... And so, while the priest muttered incomprehensible mantras, yet another Diwali unfolded before the Todarmal family.’

An excellent read which I would happily recommend to all and sundry without any hesitation.

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