I am here to invite my readers to learn about a book that involves the inner workings of a community that has often only been viewed from the outside by most people in our country, but has always held a sense of intrigue that is more attached to a culture that lives on the other side of the world.
I am talking of lives of the Anglo-Indian community who even when living in the center of our cities find themselves stuck in two separate worlds, one that holds memories of the past and the other that they find themselves present in. The question often becomes do they return to their past or have they drifted too far away?
The Growing Years builds around the reader the fascinating setting of a cantonment, the Jubbulpore cantonment to be precise, where the reader is invited into the life of the author’s past and the murmurs of the Anglo-Indian community.
The book begins slowly with an introduction to a family in mourning, but as the family recovers from unity to the normalcy of rebellion that a family with five children would come to expect, you will find yourselves enjoying reading about their way of life; from subtleties in language such as ‘funny business’ and bochee, to the larger context of influence of religion on the lives of the family.
Maya, the mother plays the central role in the tale as she tries to bind the family in what she considers to be the proper way. Her four daughters don’t quite share her view, as they squabble amongst themselves in a duel to become the center of attention.
Maya doesn’t really receive much support from her husband, Ted, who is rather detached from the picture of the family presented in the novel, or her father-in-law who treats her religious beliefs to be suited to a faraway fantasy land; or even her friend Ellen who is a natural in untying the knot of propriety that Maya has labored to place around her family.
The book talks about how children always look to support the winner. It is almost as though the daughters are stubbornly rooted in the belief that they are this winner that is talked about, as they seldom try and support each other without an evident personal benefit, sisterly love be damned (I hope Maya excuses my language). The author does a fabulous job in shifting from one daughter to the other as she presents their perspective and their childish schemes in trying to usurp power from one another.
Anna is the primary character among the children who wonders how she ended up being the daughter of a hunting father, and a student of a teacher who she feels is trying to bury her childhood. She tries in her own way to teach the parents and her teacher a lesson by trying to establish her presence, or absence to be more precise.
She finds a sense of closeness among other characters such her grandpa, Alfie, who speaks his mind just as Anna is striving to do so; or with Billy, a thirty year old intellectually disabledmanwhose non-understanding of his surroundings connects with Anna; or with Hugh, whose appearance compounds her confusion about her feelings for the opposite gender; or with Bossy who seems to mirror her disconnect with boundaries.
Maya finds herself in a situation of a kite flier who is trying to fly four kites at the same time while the kites are trying to snip at each other. We witness Maya understanding when it is prudent to let her little kites fly a little higher in order to protect herself from the threads cutting her fingers and when she needs to reel them in a little bit in order to save them from winds that threaten their being.
The story ends as it began with an incident that unifies the family as only tragedy does, but just as the manner with which the author dealt with tragedy in the beginning, she does the same at the end; with a sense of acceptance and destiny that holds a purpose in life.
I end by informing my readers that The Growing Years is a book that is transparent in its promise to tell a story honestly and letsyou into the lives of a family who’s each character wishes you to empathize with their side of the story.
--- Nikhil Mallikarjun