Hari is a naughty boy. He has secretly slipped out of a family wedding ceremony to take a pee in the nearby railyard. He’ll be missed soon, but he can’t resist a further boyish transgression: “Once the rivulet of yellow disappeared into the gravel bed, he pulled down his pants and sat on a rail…. Hari liked the feel of the cold smooth iron against his skin. As his body warmed a section of the track, Hari inched forward so he could yet again feel the cold of metal.” Soon he’s embroiled in conversation with a gruff train engineer — and imagining escape in his big iron beast.
The first pages of Toronto writer Anand Mahadevan’s debut novel bristle with thematic teasers: ambition, family, sensuality, shame and guilt, danger — all seen through the eyes of a straying child getting soot on his wedding suit. It’s all about innocence hoping to escape its dull, regimented prison.
Hari escapes decisively in the next chapter. In the kitchen of a family friend he eats some fried fish, defying an arcane religious stricture. The act momentarily frees him, then a disastrous mix of consequences and bad luck binds him with more guilt. His grandmother’s accidental death seems Hari’s fault, but we’re steered away from that dark place. Hari’s father tells him he must never feel guilt for the accident. It’s a tip off; this novel is less about family dysfunction than the hypocrisies of a whole society.
Hari can’t help thinking his way around the absurdities of Brahmin religious rituals. As the family arrives by train in predawn Benaras with grandmother’s ashes, their first impulse is to head to the Ganges for ritual bathing. Later, in the light of morning, Hari sees sewage pouring into the river from a huge pipe just upstream from the bathing ghats. He’s appalled and draws his devout great-grandad into debate — quickly stifled by the old man’s dogma. The holy Ganges, he says, cleans away every stain: “Even the dirt becomes holy and good.”
Skip ahead five years and Hari’s in Madras, at his maternal grandparents’ house. Catching a family servant, Vishu, in the act of theft, he’s shoved by the young man onto a bed and has his testicles squeezed as a warning. The violation scares Hari, but stirs something much deeper. “Look at you,” sneers Vishu, “aroused by a man’s touch.”
It’s not till a third of the way into the book that we see this first hint that Hari may grow up queer, but it reads true — we recall that opening interplay of warm bum and cool railway track from a new angle. Later at the cinema with his best friend, Mohan, a brothel scene triggers some boyish grappling, which ends with Mohan’s palm resting on Hari’s thigh. “He squirmed in his seat and the hand moved higher until it touched the hem of his shorts.” The chapter ends with escalating hand play — a homoerotic cliffhanger.
The next section, titled “Pacam (Attachment),” suggests a growing affection. But Mohan is now conspicuous by his absence. Instead we join Hari and his mother on another train to Madras. Whatever queer desire might be churning inside our pubescent hero is quickly subverted by a crossdressing hijra — a ritually castrated eunuch who is said to hold powers that can either grace men with sons or curse them with impotence. Sashaying through the railway cars, she’s extorting money from gullible men with threats of emasculation.
Then a railway strike brought on by a political crisis strands the train. Along with some dramatic scuffles between strikers and irate passengers, we’re treated to a touchingly described solo masturbation session in the first-class toilet. It’s Hari’s first-ever orgasm. A sensitively observed mix of the rapturous and the yucky, the scene is both comical and faintly sad.
This book opens with great richness and promise, offering arresting character work and vivid pictures of a fraught society. As a coming-of-age story, it’s a delicate portrait of a boy’s inner world — his core of innocence — besieged by the seething world around him.
The disappointment is in the extended and chaotic climax and hasty resolution. Disparate events jockey for narrative prominence. A man is burned alive in the street, “writhing and screaming,” then a page later an auntie is asking, “Shall I make some dosais for breakfast?”
Hari’s charming wank session in the washroom is closely followed by his implication in the horrendous crushing of three men beneath a train engine. Life does take these abrasive turns, but Mahadevan doesn’t alter his structure or the gentle pitch of his storytelling to accommodate the suddenly chafing parts. Hari, a delightfully realized character, finally becomes lost in his author’s narrative maze.