I’m a “Johnny Come Lately” to this magnificent novel which was nominated for the Booker in 1996. I’d never heard of it until I saw a book programme on TV, on which the Scottish TV and radio presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli spoke about it with such passion and love – consequently I bought it on the strength of that and I owe him such a debt of gratitude for otherwise I’d have missed this wonderful novel.
It tells the story of a group of four people whose lives become connected and inter-linked in the midst of the “Emergency” declared by Mrs Gandhi in India in the 70’s. Their everyday lives and experiences are twisted and shaped by the political crisis in their country and in particular the madnesses of the government in dealing with the political situation. Om and Ishvar are tailors working for and connected to Dina Dilal, a widow trying to make a living, which includes offering lodging to the final main character, the student Maneck.
The book is exceptionally well written. There is real tragedy and poverty and despair in some of the book and in the lives of the characters yet it’s never sentimental or over-powering. The characters were so well crafted that I cared passionately about each of them – I found that I really did feel very high and low they experienced. There’s such poverty in their lives but that’s in the material sense – their values and beliefs and hopes and fears give their lives such richness at the same time as the poverty in which some of them find themselves.