I read The Brothers Karamazov once, a long time ago (because it was Fievel’s and Tiger’s favorite book – shut up). I got to the end and was SO annoyed. I read 800 pages and you can’t even tell me what happens to the damn brothers? 800 pages and it’s a cliffhanger? No fair! (Spoiler alert.) I finally decided I was maybe too American for Karamazov, and was too focused on the destination, rather than the journey. I think I am also too American for this book, which I am also going to spoil because I don’t know how not to. I am used to characters enduring hardship to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. Good characters get happy endings, bad characters get comeuppance. I know it’s not always that black and white, but there are certain fictional formulas I’ve grown to expect. This book does not follow the formula.
There are three families, living in India in the 1970s. Each character/family gets a detailed backstory in the beginning, and then their stories wind together. All of the stories are sad. And not just a little sad – SAD. I didn’t know much about India, and learning about the extreme poverty, day-to-day horrors of the caste system, government corruption, etc., was heartbreaking. Ishvar and Omprakesh are an uncle and nephew who dared to become tailors, rather than the tanners their family had always been. In retaliation, higher caste villagers kill and burn the entire rest of the family. They’re forced to go to the city to look for work. Over their thread of the story, they are homeless, beaten, robbed, kidnapped and forced into a work camp, made beholden to a ‘Beggarmaster’ who frees them but demands monthly payments, kidnapped again by government officials trying to meet their ‘family planning’ quota, sterilized against their will, and Om is castrated by order of a vicious bully, while Ishvar’s operation leads to an infection that ends in the loss of his legs. So. Sad story #1.
Dina Dalal’s beloved parents died when she was a little girl, and she was raised (and Cinderella’d) by her horrible, much-older brother. After years of being his family’s servant, she escapes into marriage. She marries a man she loves, rather than her brother’s choices for an arranged marriage. Her husband promptly gets hit by a truck. She spends the rest of her days scraping by, trying to hold on to her independence, rather than rely on her brother’s string-adorned charity. She hires the tailors, and the three work in her flat to fill orders from a dressmaker.
Maneck is the son of one of Dina’s school friends, who comes to live with her as a paying guest as she tries to make ends meet. He wants nothing more than to live at home with his beloved parents in his beloved mountains and run their beloved general store. Of course, industry comes through, ruining his town and his mountains and his father’s store, so they send him off to school, where he lives in a hovel full of roaches until he goes to live with Dina. Then things get sad, and his ending is the bleakest.
MAN. So much pain and despair and unfairness. I think it was the unfairness that got to me most – these are good people, who try so hard, and the people with more money and power win every single time. This is not how the storybooks are supposed to go. But the writing was wonderfully lush, and I got invested in too many characters that ended up dead (the above paragraphs are only a fraction of the awfulness that happens). I think it’s important to read outside your comfort zone every once in a while, though. I do enjoy my space books, but reading something like this is a whole different perspective. It pushed me as a reader, and made me think, and made me sad. I’m not sad I read it, though.