As a seven year old Nomi sees her father murdered by armed men, looses her brother, and is finally abandoned by her mother before being picked up and transported to an orphanage run by a great spiritual guru who heads an ashram. Instead of love, she finds abuse and finally aged 12 she escapes the sexual gratification of the Guruji only at the cost of leaving behind her only friend. She ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Norwegian woman. At 25, a now slightly punkish, English speaking westernised woman with a splattering of broken, long unused Hindi returns to the fictional town of Jarmuli on the eastern seaboard of India ostensibly to make a film but with a wish to tie up the loose ends of her life story, to keep promises made to her friend Piku, to finally tell the truth.
Roy intertwines Nomi’s return with the very contrasting lives of three elderly, very conventional, Indian women, Gouri, Latika and Vidya, who have come on their first ever holiday together. The town’s beach and temple provide a living for the locals and a focal point for much of the action of the story. There we encounter the women’s tour guide Badal trying to woo street boy Raghu, the subject of his unrequited homosexual love. Raghu makes out as best he can, cadging from others, working at the beach tea stall of Johnny Toppo etc. Johnny Toppo continually sings and hums sad songs and may well have been the young gardener of the ashram back in the day. And finally there is Suraj, Nomi’s assistant, I suppose a bit like a local fixer, but who is trying to work out the breakdown of his own marriage.
Each of them is escaping something, each has their own dreams, in Badal’s case of “living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons” where there just might be a full moon every night, to bring light into the darkness and keep you safe. Because rumbling constantly just below the surface of one’s life is danger, despair, and violence. Perhaps it is the somewhat minor character of Raghu who shows best that this precariousness still exists in today’s India, bonded labour, living from hand to mouth on the streets, at the whim of the tea stall holder. Badal has his escape fund hidden in a bank account his uncle doesn't know he has, he has his scooter.
Reading this reminded me of visiting the beach resorts on this part of the Indian coastline, the temple at Kornak with its salacious, almost pornographic stone carvings on the Kama Sutra and the double standards of Indian views on sexuality and the place of women.
Overall the book touches on an important subject matter thread, but I got to the end of it wishing it had been more. More what? I am not sure. More explicit, more violent? Perhaps I am now too used to reading Scandinoir! On the other hand, one could argue the softening of the violence is appropriate as it is how it was all being related, years after the event, by Nomi and that her blurred memories, jotted down from 12 to 25 into her manuscript are a collage of fleeting moments, muddled by emotions of the moment, of regret, and of survival.
ashramblings verdict 3* Evocative read.