The Strike by India-born, Toronto-based Anand Mahadevan combines a setting of great specificity—the world of high-caste South Indian Brahmins—with a universal coming-of-age tale. Twelve-year-old Hari lives in Nagpur in North India, and is growing curious about girls, the forbidden taste of fish, and the cultural divide between his family and that of the Northerner locals. When he accidentally sets off events leading to his grandmother’s death, Hari is caught in that no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood where he is old enough to understand his culpability, but young enough to be powerless. The first half of the novel is beautifully paced, with Hari gradually realizing that adults sometimes break the rules of fair-play without incurring penalties.
Every year, Hari and his mother take a train to Madras in South India to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents. During the journey, news of a much-beloved actor-turned-politician death arrives, and mourners on the train want the world to stop functioning in acknowledgement of their grief and rage. They hence decide to prevent
the train from completing the journey by lying upon the train tracks (such spontaneous demonstrations are common in the great Indian democratic circus, I add.) Hari is in the wrong place at a dangerous time, and matters take their course.
One of the chief issues in a book so firmly located in a particular culture is to do with the proposed audience. Said differently: where will the reader meet the author? The political landscape of South India is vastly complicated, peppered with movie stars and their mistresses, atheists and casteists, and much more. Mahadevan’s potted history of Tamil politics, I felt, would neither satisfy those looking for a meaningful analysis nor the reader who just wanted to get on with the story. Another case in point is Mahadevan’s usage of Indian (Tamil language) words in his novel. One of terms he uses is eccil , a purity-associated reference to saliva. It’s a word most (Indians) would not understand, and one that the author chooses not to explain. In a subsequent scene, however, Mahadevan mentions that a dosa (or dosai) is a sourdough crepe griddled in peanut oil. Google dosa, and you’ll get over two million hits; eccil is a LOT more obscure. I’m hard pressed to account for Mahadevan’s seeming arbitrariness in such matters of translation. The Strike is published by a Canadian small press and surely intended for a general North American audience as much as an Indian one, and I fear the Tamil words will daunt many readers—a pity indeed, because The Strike is a fine novel, with vivid, insightful prose that captures with finesse a child’s eye-view of an increasingly unpredictable universe.
Note: I reviewed this book as a YA novel, though it isn’t explicitly marketed as such. Novels featuring young protagonists are rare in India, and I felt this book was an important addition to the genre.
(This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form in Eclectica.)
The Strike by Anand Mahadevan
TSAR Publications (October 30, 2006)
Genre: Literary fiction, YA