I travelled to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a cruise last November, and have been eager to read more books set in the city – and, indeed, within the whole of India – ever since. I therefore requested Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, from my local library, and settled down with it immediately.
Although it seems underread, with less than 100 reviews and just 600 readers on Goodreads, the novel was well received upon its publication in 2010, and won both the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the Betty Trask Prize. The Guardian writes that this ‘subtle novel is infused with multiple regrets. How true to life it seems…’, and The Times calls Joseph ‘a latter-day Mrs Gaskell’. The Literary Review takes a wider view, noting that the author ‘perfectly articulates a growing sense of alienation as the old, socially fractured – yet transparent – India is superseded by modern democracy.’
The protagonists of Saraswati Park are married couple Lakshmi and Mohan Karekar, who live in the quiet suburb of Saraswati Park in Bombay. Mohan works as a letter writer, and Lakshmi is, to all intents and purposes, a housewife. They are settled, with their children grown and living elsewhere. When Mohan’s young nephew, Ashish, comes to stay with them, however, the lives of all three are changed. Ashish is ‘an uncertain 19-year-old’, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and is struggling to make sense of himself. Within the family, tensions begin to grow, and Mohan and Lakshmi ‘start to question the quiet rhythm of their lives – and discontents, left unspoken for many years, begin to break the surface.’
The sense of place which Joseph has created here is wonderful. From the outset, one can feel the constant buzz and heat of Bombay, and the always moving stream of people which fills its streets and alleyways. The novel is also highly evocative of its characters; we are aware of Mohan and Lakshmi, their motivations, and their relationship with one another from very early on. Ashish, too, is presented as a daydreamer, rather vague and unable to stick to one path. We learn about the past lives of each of the characters in turn, which gives them more solidity. Their interactions with one another have been shrewdly imagined, and just as much importance is given to what is unsaid. One gets the sense that Joseph really sees her characters.
Joseph makes one continually aware of old and new Bombay, and the sense of tradition and change within the city. She writes, for instance: ‘A hundred and fifty years earlier this had been the beach, before the land reclamations; perhaps it was the murmur of the waves one heard on the busiest of days, through the endless talking… and the rumble of the red buses, the taxi horns, the metallic steps of each person hurrying through the Fort.’ The contrasts between rich and poor are, as one might expect, apparent throughout.
I love character-focused novels, and fiction set in India is a real favourite of mine. It is therefore difficult to imagine how I would not enjoy Joseph’s novel. Although parts of Saraswati Park are really quite slow, the overall novel is a delight to read. The exploration of Ashish’s sexuality is one of the best handled elements in the entire book. Saraswati Park is a lovely piece of escapist fiction and, with the rich picture Joseph creates of life in modern India, it would be the perfect choice for the even the most discerning armchair traveller.