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The quality of mercy much strained

books Updated: Aug 03, 2008 00:07 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
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Three women of Indian origin and one barmy Irish woman who run a charity shop, IndiaNeed, all of whom share a cordial dislike of their employer, the insufferably imperious Diana Wellington-Smythe, is the theme of The Cambridge Curry Club. It is a novel that meanders on through the lives of the protagonists, never quite making any point, but nevertheless hilarious in parts.

Through the book, sailing like a majestic frigate is Swarnakumari Chatterjee, one of the protagonists, whose adherence to morality is dictated by her ‘Guru Ma’, whose name she invokes even when sorting out the saucier bits of merchandise that flow into the charity shop.

There is the fiery Durga whose spirit is temporarily quelled by a loveless arranged marriage, only to reassert itself when she falls into the arms of an American scholar. The character of the Irish woman, Eileen, is the least interesting, almost an afterthought by author Saumya Balsari. And what would any book that featured Bengalis be without the anally retentive bhadralok forever in pursuit of bringing order into a chaotic universe? Well, we have him here in the form of Swarnakumari’s husband, Shyamal Chatterjee, who sublimates his frustrations over his hyper-hygenic wife who shuns any thought of marital intimacy by his zealous execution of his role as the Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator.

Where the author goes off-key is when into this shambolic but comfortable world of bumbling characters, she introduces an interlude on gays. Bob, the British husband of Heera, another of the charity shop ladies, suddenly metamorphoses from hetero into homo. And acquires a flamboyant lover named Adam, whose passion for Bob is nowhere in the league of that for his Amazon parrot from El Salvador. Adam’s love for the parrot — who goes by the utterly ridiculous name of Noddy — is almost erotic, setting Bob aflame with jealousy.

Faced with a parrot who swears like a trooper and who has no love lost for any partner of Adam’s, Bob is forced to sleep with his teddy bear. All very silly and quite needless in an otherwise rambling but charming narrative.

But in the charity shop there is never a dull moment. Now and again, whips and blonde wigs turn up in bags sending Swarna into paroxysms of horror. A hilarious sequence, very much on the lines of Kundan Shah’s classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, in which an old woman dies in the shop and the ladies try to camouflage the body and display it in the window, are done with understated humour and is thoroughly enjoyable.

But then all good things must come to an end, and in this the story hurtles to its demise as the roof collapses on IndiaNeed. The shop from which the sales proceeds went to help villagers in India becomes — you guessed it — a pizza and kebab takeaway called Bytes4U. Eileen hits the jackpot with a lottery ticket and Swarnakumari loses her Guru Ma prayer book, an event she takes to heart but which others hope will put an end to her constant godly quotes.

No surprises at the end, everyone just goes back to their own preordained, even humdrum, destinies. An enjoyable read. But not one you would walk a mile to buy.