There is an obvious pleasure in reading novels by Indian writers. You know what they’re talking about. You’re not struggling with baffling cultural references, or trying — in vain — to visualise small towns in Wisconsin or Northumberland. You get it.
Arnab Mitra’s debut novel, set in a post-liberalised India, features characters who may be shaped by their past but whose lives are profoundly impacted by the sweeping economic reforms of the early Nineties.
At the heart of the book is the relationship between Rahul Gomes, the poor lower middle class Christian boy from a shabby Calcutta neighbourhood, and Anita Roy, the privileged child of an old, distinguished Hindu Bengali family. Not surprisingly, their marriage collapses under the weight of a burdensome class divide, and Anita leaves him for someone more successful and more sophisticated.
But Rahul is determined to rise above his dismal circumstances, and the new Indian economic order allows him to grasp his dreams: he does an MBA, lands a job in a multinational bank, and along with it, a Cielo car (the symbol of that era’s prosperity), and a flat in Alipore. He gets the job he wanted, but also dreams of winning back his upper class, ambitious wife for whom professional success and material possessions mean everything.
The second phase of their relationship is interesting — while Anita revels in Rahul’s success, she also resents it because it undermines her own position as the ‘superior’ partner in the relationship. I have to confess, I found it difficult to like Anita as a character, but it’s brave of Arnab to go with a sympathetic hero and a not-so-nice heroine.
The layered, textured shifting sands of the Anita-Rahul relationship, set against the backdrop of a changing India, make for some intense reading. Anita is competent but insecure, driven but petty — though she does have her moments. Rahul is bright, eager and desperate for approval but shows his mettle when he sacrifices his plush job for principles and ethics.
There is a strong philosophical core to the book, which is actually drawn from the Bhagvad Gita. Arnab Mitra, a business journalist, has written a confident debut novel with real characters, real predicaments, set against real events. Rahul is the ‘dwarf ’ who reaches for the moon — and it’s quite a journey.