Coronet, Great Britain, 2023
An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company
This is a book of the utmost charm. It is written with gentle humour and compassion, at the same time as sharp insight. It’s an astute observation of society and how important relationships are within communities and families, how they can be our salvation.
Set mostly in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the story centres on four main characters and their families and friends.
Kamala is a former dentist and now mostly preoccupied with her daughter Lakshmi and her prospects.
Reva (Revathi) is a young professional woman working in an office where promotion seems out of reach due to sexism and cronyism and constantly nagged by her mother about the importance of immediate marriage.
There’s Jason, a British chef working in Chennai to escape his heart break over his broken relationship with his duplicitous fiancée Emma; and Mani, owner and long term dedicated resident of Grand Life Apartments, who is writing a history of Madras.
The book follows the individual stories of these four and their daily struggles with life’s ordinary challenges.
There is something beautiful about this ordinariness – Hema Sukumar is a consummate storyteller. We are immediately invested in the lives of these people, anxious that their issues will be satisfactorily resolved.
There is a delightful camaraderie that develops in the group with their many conversations about food, their problems and the march of progress; we care about their fight with the rapacious and thuggish land developer who wants to tear the apartment block down.
We enjoy and are enlightened by their encounters with work colleagues, prospective spouses, parents and children as well as chance meetings in buses or eating places.
The author has a keen eye for cultural details and the way we cling to our familiar places and habits.
She is sympathetic when her book people meet frustrations and endure sadness – and so are we. Whether it be the calamitous news from Lakshmi’s daughter that she is gay (which we find out early in the story), the destruction of Mani’s treasured garden by the builder’s musclemen or the decision that Reva comes to about her suggested arranged marriage, we understand the importance of these in each person’s life.
We hope with as much concern as if they are our friends that they resolve their dilemmas and are content with what happens next.
Thematically the book is strongly focussed on the mother-daughter relationship and on the clash of modernity and tradition, especially concerning the issue of choices for women. Friendship and community also feature strongly.
Cultural ties and differences are clearly illuminated, especially in the trip to London which Kamala and her friend Sundu make. There are some highly amusing scenes in this part of the book, demonstrating the author’s understanding of the way we react to new and strange experiences and compare them with our own traditions and rituals. We bring so much history to everything we do.
Corruption in the building trade and at some levels of government gets a nod. And then there is food, its sensuality and sensuousness, its meaning, its varying tastes and smells and textures – there’s a lot of food and food preparation in this story. It’s not just because Jason is a chef. It’s a reminder of how connected food and nurture are.
Food is an expression of love, as Kamala so poignantly points out when she comments that when your mother is no longer alive, nobody will ever again ask you if you’ve eaten with quite the same meaning and intent, that act of true care.
This book is such a beautiful and sensitive piece of writing. It’s a story in which not a lot actually happens, but everything that does touches us. It could be set anywhere.
There is a universality to the humanness of it that affects the reader and there is a gentleness here of which we are so very much in need.
Thank you to Coronet/Hodder & Stoughton/ Hachette for my review copy and to Hema for speaking with me about this elegant and affecting work.