In Boys from Good Families, writer Usha KR's obsessive eye for detail undermines larger social themes
In Boys from Good Families, Usha KR’s verbosity wrestles uncomfortably with her social and moral messaging, proving to be counterproductive in establishing the larger picture that often goes amiss.
Usha KR’s Boys from Good Families evokes the word ‘idyll’ at every turn, setting its lingering pace, as the writer takes time to build each sentence with painstaking care. She even describes the leaves of the trees in an uptown Bangalore neighbourhood, while simultaneously revealing larger social dissonances — albeit incoherently and reluctantly. But more on that in a bit.
The familiarity of the story’s premise — a Hindu upper caste and middle-class household in ‘80’s Bangalore struggling to cope with its feudal aspirations — presents little novelty, and borders on the hackneyed. However, Usha KR’s readers are compelled to stay with her characters due to the lyricism and redolent beauty in her prose.
Disillusioned with his family’s social ambitions and rejection of his love for Thippy, the daughter of their domestic help, young Ashwath decides to set off for the promised land of opportunities — the United States of America. To his surprise (and a lack of it for the readers), the feeling of being a fish out of water persists, making him ultimately settle for the role of the outsider in perpetuity. He does not require much convincing though, as the writer’s need for visual and aural detailing leaves little room for her characters to breathe or emote.
Usha KR’s verbosity wrestles uncomfortably with her social and moral messaging, proving to be counterproductive in establishing the larger picture that often goes amiss. Difficult themes of caste prejudice, social stigmas and superstition bubble quietly under a thin layer of ice, making them vaguely visible in snatches, but rendering them mostly out of reach.
The idea of ‘home’ lies at the core — and also on the cover — of the novel, foregrounding the telling of multiple tales (often too many to keep track of). The majestic and lucrative piece of real-estate, ‘Neel Kamal’, casts its enduring shadow over Ashwath’s life even several continents away. Memories of his unambitious existence under its stolid roof inspire his time away from it. His cavorting about in the bungalow’s lush garden with his sister Savitri, staring out of its windows to catch a glimpse of his lady love, and being compared to their servant “top work Kaveramma’s” son Prakash — who reversed his fortunes in America before Ashwath — in its premise, steer his journey to the US and back, when after 25 years, the rechristened Ash is forced to face his past as the old and humble Ashwath.
The novel is at once a bildungsroman, a tale of star-crossed lovers, and a story of siblings coming to terms with their conflicting inner and outer worlds, and yet, it does not commit to any of them wholeheartedly. The character of Ashwath struggles doggedly to shoulder the weight of his story, only to be let down consistently by a distracting narrative that fails to give him his due.
While the writer’s preoccupation with the mundane carries an arresting calmness, ruminating on the beauty of the 'small things' (quite literally) in life, it often decelerates the pace of the novel as it meanders through triflings. Sample this:
“A cycle bell rang at the gate. He went up and fetched the milk. He put the damp notes that the milkman had given him to dry on the kitchen counter. They smelt strongly of camphor — he recalled the popular balm of his childhood, a gelatinous yellow plug, antidote to the summer cold, brought on by a change in the weather. He watched his sister snip the corner of the milk sachet — a thing she had always done expertly, without spilling a drop.
The milk was on the gas, the pressure cooker was already hissing on the other burner. His mother might well have been in charge. He would wait upstairs, studying in his room, or on the terrace, waiting for his sister’s voice to sail up from the landing — Coffee!”
Usha KR makes use of all five senses to stir emotions akin to those evoked by Haruki Murakami through magic realism. She appeals to the tangible realities disproportionately more than she delves into the intangible realms of emotions, agonies, heartbreaks and shattered dreams, thereby leading to an underwhelming conclusion after an excruciating build-up. Her metaphors are too long-winded and tedious to be successful, or in other words, she spends more time with her trees and furniture than her humans in a story about the latter.
The reason behind Ashwath’s escape to the States is never quite explained, neither is his grouse with his father who comes across as a garden-variety Indian middle-class parent, armed with cliched offences. The narrative hastily transitions into his time in America, where he treks through professional hiccups, personal setbacks, and a haunting past that he tries desperately to shed off. None of it, however, is dwelt upon long enough to make a memorable impact.
The subsequent economic recession, followed by Ashwath's return to Bangalore to lay claim on Neel Kamal — the real protagonist of the story — amid changed faces and mutated relationships, are episodes that are heavily reliant on bleak, repetitive and inaccessible allegories.
"The room was so cluttered with things that there was barely space to move. The shelves against the wall were stacked with books — some lying face down, their spines straining, with random objects piled on top of them. There were books on the floor, and cardboard cartons full of clothes; the frill of a pink tutu and a pair of leg warmers, their creases still intact, hung out of a box. A central wooden table, painted a fluorescent green, the paint slapped on roughly in layers, had several charcoal sketches, mostly of dance costumes, scattered across and also a garment with a darning needle sticking out of it" — is how the writer chooses to introduce the living quarters of Ashwath's first blonde female friend abroad, perhaps in a bid to exemplify the irresponsibly utilised excesses of White privilege. But the effect leaves much to be desired, as the narrative's fixation with spaces and their aesthetics — despite its lyrical cadence — goes on for another two-and-a-half pages, thereby giving way to banality that does little to propel a story on social disparities and profound human experience.
There's a shocking lack of urgency in her universe, which makes for good meditative reading that one does not necessarily mind if they come seeking little else. For others, it only weighs down a story bearing ample potential with florid aimlessness.
Raymond Chandler once famously said: "A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled." Unfortunately, in Boys from Good Families, the 'distillation' or refinement of Usha KR's words is overcome by her tendency to devise obsessively, leaving the plot hollow and craving more human touch. The novel's comprehensive encounters with myriad houses and spaces is no coincidence — they lie at the very crux of the story that, I believe, has also been obscurely, and rather inappropriately titled. While the writer strives to transcend the physical confines of her central trope of "home", her characters turn progressively woodier, struggling to sink their teeth into their parts. By the end of it, most of them have become caricatures of their initial selves.
For instance, if given an opportunity, I would love to spend more time with Sundari Amma — or erstwhile Thippy — the spiritual leader of an ashram, and accompany the once timid adolescent on her journey of radical transformation, instead of focusing on the appendages that tail her new avatar. The butchering of such marvellous potential in a character leaves a bitter aftertaste.
After all, stories, much like homes, truly come alive when inhabited by the people who make them.
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