Home Products by Amitava Kumar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The quintessential small-town book of middle-class India. Just like the name, the story too is painfully unassuming almost unwilling to go into the dark territories that it could have gone to with the setup. And perhaps that is both its strength and weakness. Strength because it captures in minute detail the intricacies of a life lived on the side-lines of power and wealth and never really in its throes. As it is with most of us, and this helps a careful reader to relate to the happenings on the page, right down to the emotions evoked in the protagonist by various classic movies he saw at different points of his life. For we are a people who have grown up with the melodrama of a Bollywood drama playing a soundtrack to our life. Weakness because this ensures that the story doesn’t really go anywhere and meanders aimlessly right up to the last page. Readers looking for some kind of action in the plot and closure would probably come away in a bit of a huff. At the end of it all, is that it? But there are good things here too, for those having that all too quickly diminishing trait – patience.
Binod and Rabinder are cousins who grew up almost like brothers in their neighborhood of the city of Patna. Binod, from whose point of view the story unfolds, is a journalist covering mostly the entertainment beat of the city of dreams, Bombay. Rabinder is an enterprising young man who has the annoying habit of getting involved in slightly unlawful activities that land him in jail, despite his mother, Binod’s bua, being a politician of some stature. The latest of which was a charge of his internet parlour being used for some shady activities involving porn. But Rabinder is always full of ideas and hope on life and its possibilities, while Binod is mostly a casual defeatist who coasts by doing just about enough. When the story opens, he is at the home of a woman whose daughter, an up and comer in starry circles, had died recently. Though in the garb of a journalist, he was in fact after the more intricate details for the screenplay which a hotshot director wanted him to write. Thus, the book starts itself on a premise that teases us into thinking that there will be some kind of resolution of a death or murder mystery here. But this is not a whodunnit. Far from it. This is a story of how the big things, like murder, violence, corruption, death and life, cannot impede the unruffled progress of mundane mediocrity that is the lot of (most of) our lives. As Binod and Rabinder grow up, the book details with painful intricacy the minute details of ordinary lives and people. Somewhere along the way, Binod gets the idea of changing his script to that reflecting his bua’s life; another interesting nugget thrown our way which doesn’t really go anywhere again. His bua, widowed relatively early after first seeing her husband go mentally ill, does have an interesting arc, but this is quickly gleaned through in favor of returning to the colorless point of view of Binod. Rabinder, the more interesting of the two, sashays into the film world as his collaboration with the aforementioned hotshot director as a writer blossoms, leaving Binod slightly ruffled and jealous. But, once again, Binod doesn’t particularly do anything about it. There was a marriage in the past to a girl in his hometown but it has soured and he is a loner now. He pontificates on seminal movies from his growing up years and details their impact on him at the age he saw them. This is a nice touch, especially for those enamored by the world of cinema themselves and the impact movies seen at impressionable points of lives have.
The big threads brought up by the story not really going anywhere can be seen by some as a fault. But again, in a book that tries to mirror middle-class life as closely as it can, this could be considered a strength too. Because in the normal person’s life, the big threads don’t usually take up more than passing significance in the mundane business of survival. Binod is a perpetually vaguely dissatisfied and unsure individual who observes life around him while the big plans are usually made by someone else, including his cousin. But there is a sense, especially in the closing sections, of things developing a bit too much suddenly without the reader actually feeling involved in them. Rabinder becomes on the in with a big Bollywood filmmaker and starts hobnobbing with the elite of tinseltown, but the way it comes about is scarcely understandable or believable. And while I understand the soul of the book requiring us to leave Binod and the story hanging, a little bit of exposition and closure would have helped in the storytelling experience. The story is set in Patna and there are a lot of references to what I suspect are the city’s common landmarks and streets. The author himself being from there, I’m assuming there would be a bit of an autobiographical element to the narrative.
This was a book I bought on a whim on seeing it in a bookstore, on the basis of its interestingly ambiguous synopsis, and while it may not have been a story along the lines of what I was expecting, there is still a good deal to like here. If you’re in the mood for a carefully considered exploration of a life more ordinary, then I would suggest to give this one a look.
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