The House of Blue Mangoes is a trilogy of the travails and tribulations of a Christian family in South India. With his lucid narrative style, David Davidar weaves the fictitious tale around actual Historical events.
The opening tale is set in 1899, Colonial India. It is a time of communal tension due to a decadent caste system, brutal atrocities on lower castes, particularly women, beliefs in absurd superstitions and a complex, diverse social structure. Davidar paints a picture of Chevathar, a village of South India with majestic palm trees, old-fashioned houses with verandahs, a church and a temple. Solomon Durai is the patriarch of the village. Solomon finds himself embroiled in a battle for justice he cannot afford to loose. At stake are his standing as the leader of the village, his belief in morality and the stability of the village itself. He must battle a powerful adversary who will stop at nothing to bring him down.
The next tale focuses on Solomonís sons Aaron and Daniel. The year is 1907 and the Indian struggle for freedom is underway. Aaron, Solomonís younger son becomes an extremist in the freedom movement. Daniel becomes a successful and prosperous doctor of Ď Siddahí medicine. His unscrupulous relatives have usurped their ancestral home. Daniel reclaims their property and then establishes Doraipuram, an exclusive colony for the Durai family in Chevathar. This part of the book, where the unassuming son is forced to step in as the head of the family reminded me of the Godfather by Mario Puzo. Toward the end of this phase of the Dorai saga, Danielís son Kannan goes to college in Madras, to study Botany. It is here that he meets and falls in love with an Anglo Indian, Helen.
The final story focuses on Kannan. He is a planter in the tea estates of Pulimed. He has married Helen and is disowned by his father. In this part Davidar beautifully describes the upscale life in the tea plantation during the last few years of the British Raj. His portrayal of the conceited British Meme Sahib is particularly noteworthy. Kannanís marriage breaks down. The events that follow place Kannan on a chilling hunt for a man-eating tiger. The end of the book deals with his ultimate decision as to where he will end up.
Throughout the book, Davidar describes the lifestyle and the new challenges of faced by each generation of the Durais in vivid detail. Generation gap and its myriad of problems between younger and older generations is a recurring theme in this book. The women in these times were forced to subservience in a male dominated society. Their contributions to the family have long been ignored. In his depiction of Charity, Solomonís wife and Lily, Danielís wife, Davidar brings this fact to light. There are several instances these women step up to take charge of the family and play the role of sheet anchor to keep things in order.
The House of Blue Mangoes is more than a story about the Durais. One cannot help but marvel at the extensive research that has gone into the making of this book. He recounts several happenings of the various periods. Some of these are well known, while others are obscure. The fictitious town of Chevathar is very similar to several seaside towns near NagerKoil in modern day Tamil Nadu. Pulimed, also a made-up town, reminded me of the tea estates in Ooty. Davidar describes several sites and businesses in my native city, Madras(Chennai) . Reading this book brought back several of my childhood memories. Some shops and bookstores he names still exist today. Two of these that particularly stand out are Higginbothams, a bookstore and Spensers, a large departmental store. Davidar also names and masterfully describes the tastes and flavors of several varieties of mangoes that can activate a readerís taste buds.
Little has been said about the place of Christians in Indian Society. This book pays a long overdue tribute to this community. It will have a very special place in contemporary literature. I immensely enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it.
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