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HomeBooks and LiteratureLindsay Pereira’s The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao is a compelling, if at...

Lindsay Pereira’s The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao is a compelling, if at times cliched, drama set in a Mumbai rocked with communal violence

What do you do when you like the tale but not the teller? When a story has all the trappings of a thriller – a racy plot, wide cast, plenty of action, and unambiguous politics – but the narrator all the traits of a middle-aged Indian man convinced that what he has to say is more important than anyone else, resorting to repetition, self-pity and preaching in order to justify the time spent with him? You land up with a conundrum like Lindsay Pereira’s The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao (Rs 599, Penguin), a retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana based in 1992-1993 Mumbai, around the Babri Masjid demolition.

The first half efficiently sets up its premise: Valmiki Rao is a retired postman who is saddened to see his chawl and, in particular, one of its residents, Ramu, degrade to bigotry, complacence and poverty. He has witnessed the city rocked with communal violence and now wants to chronicle a time when things got particularly bad, around the Babri Masjid demolition, and how it led to Ramu’s downfall from a boy of great potential to a drunkard without a future. A girl, Janaki, is his one true love. Political parties like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal use young underprivileged men to incite riots and violence. There is misery all around.

Rao’s irritable and grumpy voice serves that mood well. The novel – his ‘memoir’ – feels grey and black, with rarely a moment of sunlight breaking into the chawl where all the action is set. He is a man who, by all means, is more rational and level-headed than his neighbours. He is not well-off but educated, dislikes domestic violence, unruly kids and corrupt cops. He is afraid to admit that part of the reason for his misery is that he abandoned hopes of a family long ago, and now has nobody to spend time with. Bearing witness is his only reason for going on, so it makes sense why he thinks he knows better than everyone. Like most writers with a good story, he’s fallen in love with his own voice.

But in the second half, it overstays its welcome, weighing the novel down with bloated action scenes. The first half’s strength lay in quiet character moments, as we got to know Ramu and his family, his loving parents who are uncoupled with the tragic death of his mother, the entry of a wicked stepmother, the challenges posed to Ramu’s growing influence as a shakha member by a rival boy. Once those moments are over, and it’s time for the mosque to fall and mobs to enter the quiet chawl atmosphere, the novel becomes an action-adventure story, with cliched dialogues abounding, and tight exposition often repeated from various points of view. At one point, Janaki, in a moment of duress, even remarks on the words she hears, thinking of the speaker, “He must have rehearsed it before coming up to meet her, and she imagined him standing before some dirty mirror in his kholi saying the words out loud to see what they sounded like. It was a bad speech written by the dialogue writer of a B-movie.” One or two bad speeches in the service of authenticity are okay. One or two.

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The main backdrop of the story is the Babri Masjid demolition, and Rao is a keenly observant narrator, abandoned by the system and under no illusions about his role in it – that makes for some great lines. “Buildings don’t always fall on their own; they are nudged at and nibbled away, sometimes from within by people who don’t want them replaced with clear skies,” he writes. “You can’t find speeches that were made before the masjid fell or read reports of what was said at every town and village the Rath Yatra stopped at. There were no smartphones. In India, the only secrets that matter are the ones taken to their graves.”

Festive offer

The conundrum of Rao’s likeability lingers through the novel, but doesn’t overwhelm its sheer narrative force. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong in a self-pitying narrator. Self-pity may be an unattractive quality, alienating the modern reader who is expected to like or at least sympathise with every character that steps on-page, but that diminishes the role pity, even the self-directed kind, serves in society. Pity recognises harm. It recognises victimhood. It recognises the need for change. Rao knows that.

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

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