The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami

A breath of new life in the stuffy Big House
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The Independent Culture

Good things do not seem to come to those who wait. The meek are not inheriting the earth. So how do you cope with life's disappointments, when your values seem to get you nowhere? The moral high ground can be a lonely and thankless place. Anita Rau Badami's confident and engaging second novel examines the effect of tragedy on a family stifled and oppressed by duty, where the desire to keep others happy has festered silently into unhappiness for all.

It's a wise and affectionate portrait, sticky with domestic detail. The setting is the fictional town of Toturpuram, a small coastal community on the Bay of Bengal, a long hot bus-ride from Madras, where "only idiots ventured out to work because the power had gone off and the ceiling fans were still". One such idiot is Sripathi Rao, a middle-aged man, plodding the straight path of family provider. He had a good job offer in Delhi once, but his widowed mother turned on the drama queenery at the prospect of leaving home. Instead, he Prufrocks his days away as a copywriter, expecting redundancy every morning, and fretting about the bills.

A self-proclaimed "ordinary man", Sripathi indulges heroic fantasies under the secret pen-name Pro Bono Publico, writing acerbic letters to newspapers. Yet this man with a large collection of fountain pens cannot bring himself to write to his daughter, and resolve their ancient quarrel.

Tamarind Mem, Rau Badami's semi-autobiographical first novel, reflected the wandering life of a railway engineer's family. The Hero's Walk turns to a family strangled by history. Sripathi Rao's "Big House" is crumbling away. Posh silk furniture moulders under layers of plastic and the iron gates "leaned inwards as if slowly yielding to pressure from the aggressive new world outside".

Then the brackish waters of the family are stirred by calamity. Sripathi's estranged daughter dies in a car-crash, and suddenly he has to take custody of the Canadian grandchild he has never met, and bring her back to India. For a family dedicated to projecting dreams, and disappointments on their children, the challenge is to use seven-year-old Nandana's arrival as an opportunity to break the torpid patterns of the past.

Born in this same Southern India, Anita Rau Badami has been firmly settled in Canada for ten years. Yet while this is a novel about cultural clashes, they are rarely the expected ones. A family winding down towards crabby retirement has now to face the extent to which the world has changed.

The doctor no longer makes housecalls; Putti, the unmarried aunt, remains shuttered in the basement to preserve her complexion; prospective husbands look for a girl with a computing degree. Sripathi realises he's an anachronistic misfit in advertising, where now "only the crème de la crème of English departments... could get a foot in the business".

This is a substantial, satisfying read, elegantly written and effortlessly compelling (it has already scooped this year's Commonwealth Writers Prize in Canada). Much reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry, The Hero's Walk teems with memorable characters and wry cameos.

Is the world really a more wicked place? asks Sripathi's wife. Perhaps, rather, "in the past nobody spoke of these things, families kept their sins hidden behind curtains of respectability."

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