The Hero's Walk
by Anita Rau Badami
Published by Knopf Canada
359 pages, 2000
Read the January Magazine interview with Anita Rau Badami
Where Sorrow Walks
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
The premature death of an estranged but beloved adult child forces a family to focus on all of the things they've created in their lives. Set mainly in the fictional seaside town of Toturpuram on the Bay of Bengal in India, Anita Rau Badami's sophomore novel is muscular and self-assured. Rau Badami puts not one foot wrong in this alternately humorous and deeply moving story.
With a confidence and clarity remarkable in a writer at this stage in her career, Rau Badami brings us India with a Rushdie-like swagger. Rau Badami's homeland sizzles and sings under her pen. Very near the beginning, we get a sample of this:
In a few hours that heat would hang over the town in long, wet sheets, puddled behind peoples' knees, in their armpits and in the hollows of their necks, and drip down their foreheads. Sweaty thighs would stick to chairs and make rude sucking sounds when contact was broken. Only idiots ventured out to work and, once there, sat stunned and idle at their desks because the power had gone off and the ceiling fans were still.
The India Rau Badami describes is one in which anything can happen. A hospital stay might result in missing organs, an apartment building likely won't have an elevator because, what's the use? The power likely won't be on when most needed, anyway. Cows might graze in people's front yards, old men might show their genitals to passing children and retrieving your motorcycle from a parking space might involve having to bribe a cop. There's humor in all of Rau Badami's description and a clear enough ring of authenticity that one doesn't need to wonder why she chose to set her story in a fictional, rather than a real, town.
In The Hero's Walk we are most intimate with the family of Sripathi Rao, a man at the far reaches of middle age who has worked hard all his life to do his duty and, at 57, has very little to show for it. He shares his deteriorating ancestral home with his wife Nirmala, his activist son Arun, his unmarried sister Putti and his aged and cantankerous mother Ammayya, a woman whose heart was "full of the rage she had accumulated over sixty of her eighty years of existence."
Sripathi and Nirmala's marriage isn't loveless, however over the many years of their co-habitation their feelings for each other have been dulled to mostly friendly bickering. Arun is a deep and continual disappointment to his father: at 28, rather than engaging in a profession and marrying well, he lives a "hermit-like" existence. Working on a doctorate while engaging in protests and other things that are entirely mysterious to his father:
"What are you involved in now? Henh? Some other saving-the-world project? Why are you wasting your time trying to be a big hero instead of getting a job? Here I am, head full of grey hair, going to work everyday like an ox, and my son sits at home dreaming useless dreams."
Putti is sweet, loving and badly misused by her mother. At 42, she laments the many suitors that have approached her mother and her brother over the years only to be dismissed on one pretext or another by Ammayya, who wants only to keep her daughter with her until she dies.
Into this family portrait that is, on so many levels, tinged with hackneyed quiet desperation, a little true desolation is dropped. Sripathi and Nirmala's first child, Maya, and her husband are killed in a car accident in distant Canada. Maya is the beloved and brilliant daughter that went away to the United States to complete her education, only to fall in love with a foreigner, without caste or station in Sripathi's world. Worst of all: she had asked her father to tell the family of the young man that Sripathi had arranged for her to marry that Maya had made other plans.
In a desperate attempt to convince his daughter to abort what he sees as a social and spiritual suicide mission, Sripathi -- in flashback -- tells his daughter that if she insists on marrying the foreigner, she will never again be welcome in her father's house. "If you persist on doing this foolish thing," he shouts into the phone long distance, "never show your face in this house again. Never."
But never is a long time. Too long. Nine years later, Maya and her foreign husband are dead. Their seven-year-old daughter Nandana is alive and in Vancouver, staying with friends of the family until her grandfather can come and take her to her new life in India.
It goes without saying that the coming of the child will bring change to this home grown complacent, perhaps, through lack of laughter. But The Hero's Walk never approaches the trite or even the predictable. By the end of the book, Sripathi himself is shown to be a hero in so many ways. As are Putti, Arun and even poor little Nandana, plopped suddenly into a world so foreign to her that it may as well be Mars. But not Ammayya. If there's a bad guy in The Hero's Walk it is, perhaps, this evil grandmother.
Anita Rau Badami is an accomplished novelist and a confident storyteller. She weaves many fine threads into her textual tapestry and seems to not forget a single one. By the last page she has revisited all of her old threads, wrapping things into a fine and satisfying whole. On the journey there, we experience the many resonances the author has left for us. More importantly, perhaps, we feel connected to Sripathi and his family, no matter how far away the reader may be or feel from the Bay of Bengal. | May 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.