A review of The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar

The book is an easy, compelling novel – the kind of book you can take to the beach, or read on a long flight, without unduly straining yourself. In short, it is a good story, albeit not one which lends itself to re-reading, or even the kind of post-read ponder that literary fiction usually inspires. While The House of Blue Mangoes lacks the kind of depth, or narrative intensity that makes for great literature, and is more craft than art, the book is well constructed, and carefully researched, and will appeal to readers who read solely for its relaxation effect or its ability to recreate a specific time or place.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

House of Blue Mangoes
by David Davidar
Hardcover: 432 pages,
HarperCollins; ISBN: 0066212545; 1 Ed edition (March 5, 2002)

David Davidar’s much hyped first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes starts with “the ordinary violence of dawn”, and ends with the ordinary scent of a mango. Although there are extraordinary activities that occur in this rather long generational saga, it is the ordinary that drives the story. The action occurs during the turbulent period of India in the late 19th century (1899-1947), and chronicles India’s move to independence, along with a series of vicious caste wars, as seen through the eyes of the Dorai family. The setting is a fictional city, Chevathar, on the southern tip of India, and the story begins with Soloman Dorai, the town leader or “thalaivar”, and his wife Charity, and moves through the Dorai children, Daniel, Aaron, Rachel and Miriam, and Daniel’s children Shanthi, Usha and Kannan. Despite the large historical background to this novel, the focus is very much on the personal lives of the Dorais, and the impact of the changes to their world on their lives. There are a number of fairly brutal acts, including the rape that takes place early on and signals the change to the sleep town of Chevathar, a mindless but vicious assassination, and a war on the beach, where an innocent man is graphically killed as he tries to help. Overall however, this is a lyrical and peaceful book, which covers a range of disparate themes, and the historical impact of Gandhi and the Congress Party, World War II, and the personal self-actualisation of a number of characters.

The book is divided into three sections, each focusing on one member of the Dorai family. The first book is about Soloman, his attempts to halt the outbreak of caste wars, and his loss of power in the face of a changing India. The second book looks at Daniel, Soloman’s peace loving son, who becomes a famous doctor following in the footsteps of his mentor Dr Pillai, and inventor of Moonwhite Thylam: “make your face shine like the Pongal moon”. There is also Aaron, the angry freedom fighter, and his struggles for India’s independence. The third book, Pulimed, focuses on Daniel’s son Kannan, who falls in love with an Anglo Indian Helen at University in Madras. When his father doesn’t approve of Helen, Kannan leaves his home to become a plantation manager on the tea estates in Pulamed. The men are reasonably well drawn, and Soloman’s physical strength, and attempts to moderate between his traditional role, and the changes taking place around him drive the plot forward, as does Aaron’s anger and pain, which colour his political focus, and make Daniel’s focus on family and internal matters seem more realistic than the flimsy and shifting ethics of the political world into which Daniel refuses to be drawn. Kannan’s attempts to fit into British society, partly a product of his father’s political apathy, and his struggles for self-actualisation in the face of his wife’s unhappiness and British “superiority” are reasonably poignant. Charity is also reasonable interesting as a character, trying to maintain her sense of decorum and pride in a country that dramatically devalues her sex. Her descent into insanity is at least as powerful as Aaron’s pain and role as a political assassin.

The other characters lack a sense of depth and reality, and Daniel’s wife Lily, Kannan’s silly wife Helen, and the female sibling/children Rachel, Miriam, Shanti and Ushi are all utterly forgettable. More memorable is the pompous Mrs Stevenson, whose obsession with the perfect cup of tea, and terror of the Indian is both comical and tragic:

But she wasn’t just showing a beautiful young pretender her place, she was also battling something she but dimly sensed, a feeling that everything she held dear was about to be swept away. It was bad enough that fools like her husband though Indians could be their equals, but to think that she had to entertain a mixed blood, whom even Indians discriminated against, in her own sitting room…

We never really get under the skin of the characters though – never really get close enough, even to Daniel and Kannan, who are the real focal points of the stories – there is just too much going on, and we have too little insight into their passions. The poetic writing is reserved for natural descriptions, and the characters inner world left more or less untouched.

The description of the natural world is where Davidar works best, even if it has a tendency towards a slight purple lushness, dwelling on the sensual – colour, sound, smell, taste, for which much of Indian writing is known: “The open flame licked at the tasselled edges of the peacock feather. Slowly indigo, emerald, aquamarine, gold, bronze, the show shimmering spectrum of colour, was reduced to ash.” The details of chemistry, the scent and colours of tea, and the smell and taste of a mango are all given serious play: “Daniel ate his first Alphonso, and as the taste – a touch of tartness, a spill of honey, a profusion of fresh light notes on a deep bass foundation – sank into his palate he understood why it was so coveted.” (218) If a similar kind of richness was shown in the characterisation, this would have been a much more powerful novel.

While for the most part, the narrative voice is a traditional 3rd person omniscient style, there is a single momentary drift into a first person narrative that doesn’t appear deliberate: “Indian vs Indian. We’re brilliant at it. Differences of caste, community, language and religion have split our society for thousands of years.” (183) While this is just the kind of engagement that the novel lacks – the sense of intensity and character that could have been put into the mouth of one of the characters – Daniel perhaps. As it stands, one begins to wonder who the narrator is, and why we should occasionally have access to his specific thoughts.

Thematically, the story is more about events than ideas, and more about a specific set of characters than about the meaning of these events and characters. Ultimately there is no resolution. We know the outcome of the history in which the story is set – a true history, but what is right and what is wrong, or whether Aaron’s engagement or Daniel’s sense of family and the personal is right or not is left open. Kannan finds a kind of sense of purpose in home – almost a Panglossian tilling of his garden: “I’m here, it is the place of my heart”, and perhaps that is the ultimate theme of the book – to stay home, and become yourself, and till your own garden/grow your mangoes. In any case, Kannan’ return home is reasonably satisfying as an ending, even if the ultimate struggles of his country are to continue beyond the setting of this story.

Davidar co-founded Penguin India at the age of 26, and has been responsible for publishing Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, R.K. Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Shashi Tharoor, Rohinton Mistry, Shobha De, Sunil Khilnani, and Vikram Chandra, among others. Although he initially submitted The House of Blue Mangoes under a pseudonym, it is very likely Davidar’s high profile in the publishing industry which has caused the book to receive such strong attention, a reported bidding war, huge advances, and film offers. It is easy to see why many ordinary readers have taken to it. The book is an easy, compelling novel – the kind of book you can take to the beach, or read on a long flight, without unduly straining yourself. In short, it is a good story, albeit not one which lends itself to re-reading, or even the kind of post-read ponder that literary fiction usually inspires. While The House of Blue Mangoes lacks the kind of depth, or narrative intensity that makes for great literature, and is more craft than art, the book is well constructed, and carefully researched, and will appeal to readers who read solely for its relaxation effect or its ability to recreate a specific time or place. As for me, I’ve become accustomed to being stretched, challenged, and gutted by the novels I choose to read. The House of Blue Mangoes is not that kind of book.

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