For me, 2014 has been a year of reading new Indian writers. I bought many books out of pure curiosity, without waiting for reviews or recommendations. Many of the books left me unsatisfied. They certainly didn’t seem like books that I would want to recommend to any one else, or even pick up again.
And then I bought Aruna Nambiar’s “Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth”. I had met Aruna through mutual friends and the excerpt on Facebook got me curious. But let me be honest. I thought this would be one of those books that got by on pure nostalgia. (That’s always an easy sell.) The blurb and cover picture certainly promised this.
I was in for a pleasant surprise. The book does indeed bring back quintessential Indian memories. The story centers around little Geetha, who is at her grandparents’ house in the village for the yearly summer vacation with cousins. But Aruna refuses to succumb to simple nostalgia in telling Geetha’s story. She paints a fascinating and complex tableau of life in a small and conservative village, and turns her lens on things that are seldom talked about in such books: infatuation, greed, jealousy, and, yes, sex.
Aruna has a wicked sense of humour and her observant eye misses nothing. I was delighted by the tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the characters and their compulsions. The biggest surprise for me in this book was how beautifully Aruna captures the struggles of growing up. As adults, we tend to trivialise the concerns of children, but if we cast our minds back, we’d remember how serious the world seemed to us. Little Geetha is forced to confront many things that summer, not the least of which is the fact that she no longer fits in with her group of cousins. I enjoyed the peek into her mind as she wanders around the house trying to amuse herself and also show her cousins up.
“Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth” was a completely satisfying read for me. This is a classic, timeless book that illuminates and entertains by turn. The writing is nuanced and distraction-free, and the story pulled me in from the very beginning. If I have one criticism, it is that the ending is rather abrupt for a book that otherwise chugs along so smoothly. I would have liked it to have stretched out a bit more, and it could have done without the sudden shift in narrative tone.
But this is a minor quibble. Like the judges on Masterchef Australia, I asked myself, “In the end, did I enjoy it?”, and the answer is a resounding “Yes”. I want to add that I’m also very grateful to have my faith in new Indian fiction restored. I hope to read more of Aruna Nambiar’s writing and perhaps discover more delightful writers like her.