(Did this short review for Tehelka)
Trains are a central motif of Anand Mahadevan’s debut novel, set mostly between Nagpur and Madras in the mid-1980s. The prologue, fittingly titled “Asai (Desire)”, introduces us to the young protagonist Hari – the son of a railway engineer – who wants nothing more than to ride in a train engine. Towards the end of the book, this wish will find morbid fulfilment, but in between is a nicely paced coming-of-age story about a boy dealing with the strangeness of family and friends.
Up to the halfway point, The Strike is a book of engaging vignettes: a grandmother dies in tragi-comic circumstances, necessitating a trip to Benares; an orthodox family must accept an American daughter-in-law; there is a confrontation with language militants who want Hindi-speakers out of their state. In all this, rail journeys play a recurring part and there are careful descriptions of the cold metal of railway tracks, the thick fabric of connecting gangways, and the electric poles, 25 to a kilometre, running parallel to the train – all seen through the fascinated eyes of a 12-year-old. But there is also a sense of a train as a comforting cocoon, a solidifier that brings different people together and into which the divisions of the outside world rarely impinge. It’s easy to see why this is reassuring for Hari, who (much like his friend Anamika, a Bengali girl who can barely speak her ancestral language) is more fluent in Hindi than in his mother tongue Tamil, his time in central India having left him unmoored.
Mahadevan is good at capturing the more fearful aspects of a precocious child’s world, including growing sexual awareness (as manifested in the threatening sexuality of older women who become uninhibited during Holi celebrations, the meagrely dressed Mandakini in the hit film Ram Teri Ganga Maili, the young playmate who seems to have matured overnight, and an attractive young actor on a train). There are depictions of patronising adult hegemony when a tradition is questioned (if the Ganga purifies everything it touches, why should a Brahmin be forbidden from eating the fish that live in it, Hari asks) and an understanding of how the smallest misstep can beget disproportionate guilt in a child, making it seem like he is somehow responsible for everything bad that is happening in his world.
Unfortunately, when the Tamil Express carrying Hari and his mother to Madras is brought to a halt by protestors mourning the death of the legendary actor-cum-chief minister MGR, the narrative enter a period of stasis as well. The hysterical deification of south Indian filmstars-turned-politicians is very amusing (“What is there to live for when MGR is dead?” howls a protestor; a young man who initially had a crush on the actress Jayalalitha starts thinking of her as his Amma when he learns that she is involved with MGR), but the plot as a whole begins to meander. We sense that something bad is about to happen, but the book never quite summons the sense of urgency that this portion of the story demands; instead it gradually cuts us off from Hari’s perspective, a decision that compromises the final quarter of the story.
Consequently, as The Strike judders to a halt, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it lost a thread somewhere along the way. This isn’t an unworthy debut by any means, but it could have been a more focused one.