The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao

Reviewed by Sakura Gooneratne

9781907970313 Mahesh Rao’s debut novel, The Smoke is Rising, chronicles the daily lives of Susheela, Mala and Uma in Mysore, India; three women from very different backgrounds caught in situations they never expected to find themselves in. Like many novels written in English and set in modern India, there is a heady mixture of the exotic set side by side with the inevitable technological advances that slowly transform every country into one global entity. India, like most Asian countries, is a confusing mixture of third world traditions existing next to first world luxuries and their ensuing problems. Rao does an admirable job in juxtaposing the two, showing how they co-exist, alternating between the comic and the tragic.
Susheela is a widow, comfortably well off and living alone, her two daughters living abroad and busy with their professional careers. Her days are boring as she soon notices her social invitations drying up, now that she is no longer somebody’s wife, until she is rescued by Jaydev, a widower and slight acquaintance, when trouble suddenly erupts in Mysore one day. And slowly, a hesitant friendship blossoms between the two lonely people.

Mala is in her third year of marriage to Girish, twelve years older, educated and once politically active. Once considered an advantageous catch, Girish is intent on educating his young wife and opening her eyes to all that the world can offer. Except Mala is content as she is and Girish, who can’t understand her disinterest, sometimes loses his cool.

And then there is Uma, living alone in a shanty town, tight-lipped and keeping to herself. She works for Susheela while her usual employer, Janaki, returns home to her parents to have her first child. But when Uma’s unprotected home is flooded during a sudden heavy monsoon rain, an unexpected kindness throws Uma’s hard-won independence and stability into jeopardy.

The first thing you notice about The Smoke is Rising is the quality of Rao’s prose. It’s polished, languid and full of sophisticated and hilarious observations. Take, for example, a fixture at the Mysore law courts,

The longest serving functionary in this cloister was I P K Rangaraja, a man famed for his probity and his devotion to an ancient tweed suit, worn as a mark of contempt for the Mysore weather.

The writing is a real pleasure to read, not trying too hard to please, and has an assured feel surprising for a debut novel. Susheela, Mala and Uma are subsumed by the character of Mysore itself with its cacophony of the daily minutiae of the characters that inhabit the city. But gradually, you get to know the three main protagonists. Their quietness is their strength; their silence, their plea. Amidst the bustle of the city, it is their inner life that you slowly uncover and want to strip bare. For at its heart, Rao’s novel is about silent endurance: from loneliness, violence and guilt. Rao’s touch is light but this only magnifies the impact of any unexpected event.

The blow, when it came, was definitive. The impact of the slap loosened a tooth, rattled the glass cabinet doors, cracked the paving stones by the gate, split the trunk of an ancient tamarind tree in the lane outside, sent an alley dog skittering away in terror, collapsed the humpback bridge that led to the main road and caused a lone cold wave to begin rising over the surface of distant Tejasandra Lake.

It’s not a sad book but it’s a contemplative one. And when I finished the book, I wanted to know more about the three characters who are so ordinary yet struggle to live with meaning, especially Uma, of whom we know so little.

Rao does a wonderful job in leaving just enough out. It’s one of the strengths of the novel, making you, the reader, imagine what is happening behind the scenes. You wonder about the lives of the characters. Will they be alright? Will they make the right decisions? Will they be able to stay true to themselves and be happy? And yet the book itself is crammed with detail, maybe just a little too much. The beginning is long and slow, and The Smoke is Rising might have benefited from a little more action on the part of the three main protagonists, who were the most interesting part of the novel, in contrast to the sections on the modernisation of Mysore which seemed a little superfluous even if done well. I would have loved the balance of the two to veer a little more towards the three women. But I loved and was impressed by the sheer quality of Rao’s writing and look forward to seeing what he produces next.

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Sakura Gooneratne blogs at chasing bawa and wishes she had a room of her own and £500 a year or the modern equivalent.

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising (Daunt Books: London, 2014), 978-1907970313, 288pp., hardback.

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