The disclosure first: The narrative trigger for this book is the relationship between a Tam Brahm boy and a Jewish-American girl. Substitute Bengali-Agnostic for Jewish-American and this could be my love story. Well, almost. I can't boast of shifting continents and cultures in an attempt to win over my in-laws, as Deborah does in 'Chennaivaasi', but I did identify with situations and emotions on almost every page. So I'm not the average reviewer, but I'd argue this is not the average desi-boy-wins-blonde book either.
Ravi goes to the US to study, meets Deborah at his first job, falls in love, wins her heart. Enter the family. Amma and Appa are strongly against their son marrying a white woman and refuse to meet her, even after the couple move to Chennai in an attempt to win them over. Just when Amma looks like she might soften, she dies. What follows is an intricate storyline involving property disputes, local dons, supportive aunts, abusive brothers-in-law, all lubricated by generous doses of filter coffee.
Tirumurti couldn't have chosen the title of his book better. His story is equally about Chennai as the people who live there, about what makes a 'Chennaivaasi' and how to become one. It's not just Deborah's journey, it's also Chinamma's, her elderly low-caste maid. The real love story goes beyond Ravi and Deborah's cross-culture bond, beyond Amma and Appa's enduring marriage, to the relationship between the city and its people. The author's own ties to Chennai are obvious, deep and nostalgic, though his dry humour, especially his potshots at caste and politics, saves the book from sentimentality.
Writing is in his genes (R K Narayan is an uncle) and Tirumurti writes simply and well, clearly at home in the world he's created. Initially, the chronological to-ing and fro-ing is a bit confusing but I soon got used to that. Also, some of the characters could have perhaps done with a little more attention: for example, more of Ravi's brothers' point of view would have been interesting. But Tirumurti does give us enough different perspectives to round out the book nicely. He's at his best though in describing TamBrahm culture with all its quirks, its reliance on tradition, its insistence on rules that structure every aspect of daily life- down to what it means if a lizard chirps to the southwest.
Read this book for its engaging characters, its quirky humour, its depiction of a modern love story that begins by clashing with tradition but ends, like any two 'Chennaivaasi's, by happily co-existing. Read it even if you're not, like Deborah and me, a non-Tam Brahm in a Tam Brahm family. Because even if you don't get the inside jokes about veshtis and Vedic chants, this is a book definitely written in a good muhurtham.
Book: Chennaivaasi; By TS Tirumurti; Price: Rs. 299; 270 pages