“And let me tell you another thing, it will be a great opportunity for this city. I mean, who had heard of Florida before Disney World?”
“What was there before?”
Two nameless public-sector bank employees who often visit Vishram Coffee House in Mysore for lunch are talking about Mysore’s plans for HeritageLand, a theme park that will ‘showcase the country’s traditions and culture’, where cutting-edge technology will be used to depict ‘the drama of the ancient epics’. The proposal’s tourism benefits, the choice of site, the acquisition of land, have all been endlessly debated in the local press so people have been reading about it and discussing it as they go about their lives, most of them unaffected by it directly.
Susheela, an elderly widow who has recently discovered a penchant for sweets and has just bought a box of kaju pista rolls before popping into the Great Expectations bookstore, finds herself somewhat directly affected. There has been a dharna by the theme park farmers and a lathi charge. As a bus is burnt and the smoke in the title of Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke is Rising first rises, the bookshop owner shuts his shop and she finds herself stranded on the deserted street until an acquaintance, Jaydev, a widower, comes to her rescue and drops her home.
There are other lives we are drawn into, people’s pasts and present revealed bit by bit in this episodic book where Rao goes from one character to another as summer progresses to monsoon and to winter. Girish, 30-something, well qualified, has dispiritedly settled down into a bureaucratic job at the regional electricity distribution company, and into matrimony with a girl 12 years his junior who he feels he must mould.
There is Anand, Girish’s younger brother, who has an outdoor publicity empire, who lives in a bungalow and has plans to move into a gated community, that new status symbol of a new India where there are CCTV cameras and the kids can play safely. On the other end of the spectrum is Uma, guarded and reserved, refusing even to be drawn into conversation with Susheela, who she works for. She is, however, friends with Janaki, seven months pregnant and off to her mother’s place. The love story of Janaki and her adoring husband is told in detail.
Rao draws a portrait of a changing India and his perceptiveness shows through in the conversations between Susheela and Jaydev, Susheela’s relationships with her daughters; his matter-of-fact descriptions about the way we are: ‘It was wedding season and the shop was busy. Impassive matrons consulted lists scribbled on pages torn from their grandchildren’s exercise books and huddled conferences were breaking out on the little stools provided for customers. Shop girls circulated with steel lotas of intensely sugared coffee and cold badaam milk, made from a cheap packet mix, as noted by the more discerning clientele.’
But as Susheela and Jaydev progress to meeting, going for drives and movies and early morning picnics, as Mysore’s first International Film Festival takes shape, as the Mysore Tourism Authority gets set to showcase the city as the ‘Geneva of the East’ and farmers are put out by a high court ruling, we wonder how exactly all these lives will intersect even as other minor characters flit in and out, their purpose not quite clear.
There are also some far too detailed descriptions that the book could easily have done without. But by and large it’s an agreeable read about the lives of characters caught between modernity and tradition, about social realities and political machinations and a society in flux. About, as the nameless bankers in the coffee shop who appear periodically through the pages say: India Shining, India Whining, India Pining.