Wednesday, 29 June 2011



As a city transforms, lot many things fade out silently. Just like the tribe of 'letter writers' who are possibly making a quiet exit from our bigger cities with the advent of Internet and perhaps a slight increase in literacy among the migrant subaltern. Mohan --- the 'letter writer' in his 50s --- who is one of the leading characters of Mumbai-born young author Anjali Joseph's debut novel, Saraswati Park, however, does not represent all that is vanishing. “He is a person in his own right, not a symbol,” says Joseph who has just won the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize in the UK for this novel. “But I did want to write about the type of minor clerical worker that you see all over Fort... crossing the Maidans in a hurry at rush hour on the way to either VT or Churchgate,” she adds.

As a child and later as an adult, Joseph came across the middle-class life in Mumbai. And she wanted to portray that milieu and the “importance of book in that world.” So we find Mohan and her wife Lakshmi trying to live their middle-class lives through compromises that a family-life demands. But amid the neatly-ironed shirts and the daily chores, Lakshmi tries to seek respite from the tedious domesticity: the television serials come to her rescue, though that infuriates Mohan. Then we find Ashish, Mohan's nephew, who comes to live with his uncle in Saraswati Park, in a quieter part of Mumbai. The young man is consumed with excitement and anguish of a concealed love.

“I already had the characters of Mohan and Ashish in mind,” says Joseph. “The first thing I wrote of the novel was the opening scene... I had the image of a man looking through the book stalls at Flora Fountain as the rush hour commuters began to flood through. The rest came as I wrote it,” she reveals about how the novel got evolved.

With all these characters, Mumbai too becomes a character in the novel as the city's charm unravels through Joseph's words. They indicate the author's love for the city which she left to study in the UK and work in Paris. What are her fondest memories of Mumbai? “They would be very ordinary things... taking the number 3 bus from Navy Nagar into town, going to the aquarium, playing in the Hanging Gardens, swimming in Juhu as a child, lurking in Kala Ghoda,” Joseph recounts. “There are also many places associated with my parents and grandparents, as well as friends, so the personal and general are often mixed.”

We get back to the prize she has been awarded. Appreciating the recognition an award brings forth, Joseph says: “It's very nice that people with whom you have no connection read your work and feel such enthusiasm for it.” Indeed that's true, as Joseph has attracted readership across the continents. Perhaps it is then natural that her next novel is set in Paris, London and Mumbai. Quite a multinational affair from the author who doesn't subscribe to the concept of Indian Writings in English.