And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy.
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
How refreshing it is to come across a comedy that’s genuinely, unabashedly funny – one that tries to provide belly-laughs on nearly every page and very often succeeds. Srividya Natarajan’s No Onions Nor Garlic was occupying space on my desk along with a number of other new books, destined for an impersonal (and un-bylined) write-up for a New Releases column. But I’m glad I actually read it – it’s a manic, immensely entertaining novel.
This is essentially a comedy/romance set amidst the caste politics of Chennai University. The title derives from the line in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream quoted above (though it also refers to a “strictly vegetarian–no onions, no garlic” stipulation in a matrimonial advertisement) and the book begins with a bizarre interpretation of the Bard’s comedy, conceived and directed by the megalomaniac Professor Ram (short for Pattabhiraman). This is a man whose chief aim in life is to restore the Traditional Order of Hinduism, which may help explain why the young changeling who Titania and Oberon quarrel over in the play is eventually revealed to be Lord Krishna himself (his soliloquy about descending in times of Adharma to protect the righteous derives more from the Gita than from anything Shakespeare wrote). And yes, Hermia and Helena and their suitors are missing from this performance of the play since they aren’t very relevant to the professor’s vision.
Prof Ram strongly disapproves of the university’s Reservations Policy, which in his view “had swung too far in the pro-low-caste direction… it was snatching the curd rice and mango pickles from the mouths of twice-born Brahmin boys”. A president of the Tamil Brahmin Association (or TamBrahmAss), he subscribes to the theory of reverse troddenness or “trodditude”, which states that “the so-called scheduled castes stomp with an upward motion and grind the upper castes into the stratosphere with an unprecedented gravity-defying aggression…”
To counter this undesirable upward motion he appoints a student, the goofy Sundar, as leader of the Brahmin cause and bids him organise a demonstration against a Dr Ambedkar statue that’s been installed on the college premises. The problem is, Sundar has already fallen deeply in love with a theatre performer named Jiva, a member of the Dalit community. To compound matters, a quirk of circumstance finds Sundar and his sister engaged to Prof Ram’s Canada-returned children. Thrown into the mix are another professor whose hand keeps moving from his nose to his fly (“spinning a gossamer thread between snout and spout”) when he’s nervous, a driver whose method for sorting out the brake from the accelerator is to use each at random till he’s satisfied with the effect, and an anonymous writer of cheerfully scurrilous (and ungrammatical) missives directed at Prof Ram. (“I bet you are thinking who wrote this? Ha ha” he signs off.)
There’s much in No Onions No Garlic that draws on the work of comic masters of the past. The plot has hints of the campus novels written by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, the writing in places contains deliberately awkward phrases of the sort used by Damon Runyon (“she was no one but his own adoring mother…”) And the romantic confusions evoke P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories (the gulping Sundar is a decent stand-in for Monty Bodkin).
This combination could so easily have resulted in a messy hotchpotch, but Natarajan pulls it off, partly because she isn’t just imitating indiscriminately; her book has a style of its own that fits its setting very well. There is evidence of a solid ear for the rhythms of speech and behaviour, she pokes fun at sacred cows without being mean-spirited about it (don’t miss the scene where the commissioning of a giant statue of a goddess involves deciding the “cup size” for her breasts), and she has most of her characters down pat. Exaggerated as many of the situations are, a general feeling of authenticity runs through the story – even the most improbable scenarios are familiar.
For instance, there’s a wonderfully funny chapter where two families meet to discuss a marriage proposition. Central to the effect of this scene are the meticulous efforts of the hostess to ensure that everything goes off well despite the many idiosyncrasies of her own family. Set against this is our knowledge that of course it won’t go off well; everything that can go wrong will go wrong. The scene is situation comedy by its very nature, demanding a certain amount of exaggeration in the behaviour of the characters and suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader; but in this genre that’s par for the course. What’s more important is that almost any of us can relate to the inherent funniness of the situation and the vast potential for things to go awry. The setting is only a mildly dramatized version of countless real-life scenes, and the whole thing is milked for all that it’s worth.
No Onions Nor Garlic might be too loud for some readers’ tastes. Natarajan rarely holds back: she plays around with words, dismissively uses a funny turn of phrase that another writer might have turned into a centrepiece. The text is scattered with analogies (when a mother emotionally blackmails her family by reminding them of her many sacrifices, she “begins to sigh like the monsoon tearing up the rain forest over the Western Ghats”) that would have misfired (or been unintentionally amusing) in a book that took itself very seriously. However, they suit this madcap caper very well.
For me, much of the fun of reading this book came from the sense that the author had a lot of fun writing it. I also appreciate the risks that go into carrying off something like this: good comedy is among the hardest things to do, and always so easy to get wrong. Natarajan goes all the way in the final chapter, with an ending that combines slapstick with a parody of lost-and-found scenes in Hindi movies and the introduction of a romantic relationship that Wodehouse would have baulked at. It’s wonderfully bawdy, colourful and melodramatic, not all that different in its effect from the final act of a Shakespeare comedy where all the loose ends are tied up.
P.S. I’m usually very sceptical about people trying to copy Wodehouse. I worship the man as much as the next fellow does, but he’s the kind of writer who can seduce anyone (especially between the ages 16-20) into thinking they can pull off a passable imitation of his work – and of course when they try it they find their face in the mud. (I discovered this from firsthand experience in producing a terrible short story for my school magazine, and from subsequent failed attempts to approximate the world occupied by characters like Psmith and Uncle Galahad.)