Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s novel The Golden Son begins in a nondescript Gujarati village named Panchnagar. Panchnagar, where Anil Patel is the eldest son of a large and wealthy land-owning family—a family whose patriarch traditionally acts as an arbitrator, a resolver of disputes, judge and a peacemaker in Panchnagar. Panchnagar, which Gowda mentions in the note at the end of the novel, is a fictitious settlement which she named after the concept of the panchayat. Not that there is any panchayat in The Golden Son, but the idea of an informal adjudicator is the basis of much that happens in the book.
There are two main protagonists in this story. One is Anil, who, spurred on by his father’s desire that Anil become a doctor, ends up going all the way to Dallas, US, for further studies. The other is Anil’s childhood friend, the relatively poor but feisty Leena, who—in the way of countless village girls all across India—is married off to a man chosen for her by her parents. While Anil goes through the shock of finding himself in an alien culture where things are nothing like what he has known, Leena too, to her surprise, ends up in a situation she had not imagined: treated like a servant, abused and nearly murdered by her husband and his family.
Through these two interwoven narratives—one in the US, the other in India, both coming together now and then whenever Anil comes back home—Gowda weaves a story of two worlds. Two worlds, not just when it comes to America and India, but other forms of ‘two worlds’: rich and poor, powerful and helpless, strong-willed and spineless. Two worlds that collide every now and then, in different ways. In the way Anil is treated by the derisive and violently racist male relatives of his Texan girlfriend. Or the way Leena must battle not just husband but society to keep herself alive and well. The conflict between ethics and ambition, dreams and reality, the selfishness of romantic love and the selflessness of a higher calling.
What works in this book is Gowda’s story-telling: she is a consummate storyteller, her characters alive and vibrant, her narrative so fast-flowing and gripping that the book is hard to put down. Even as she switches between India and America, Leena and Anil and those close to them, the author keeps the story fluid, coherent. There is an interesting and not always predictable play of emotions and morals here, of shades of grey rather than black and white. True, some events get telescoped into too compact a timeline, but where she allows herself to explore the many facets of human behaviour—greed, viciousness, blind love, ambition, the burden of expectations—Gowda shows a fine understanding of what it means to be human.
If there is one thing that jars, it’s the obvious (to an Indian) lack of complete familiarity with India. True, Gowda does manage to recreate rural India well in The Golden Son, but she slips up occasionally in the finer details. A mention of Leena, a rural Hindu woman, wearing a wedding band, for instance; or lemongrass being added to chai, or a woman from Tamil Nadu whose mother tongue is Telugu…none of them impossible, but all unlikely enough to make an Indian reader realise that Gowda is far more comfortable with the American settings of her book than she is with the Indian settings.