Meera is a smart society wife and cookbook author, caught up in tending to her family. She lives with husband Giri, son Nikhil, mother Saro and grandmother Lily in Lily’s beautiful home. The gracious old home is referred to as the “lilac house” for the unusual color of it’s walls. Nayantara, Meera’s older daughter lives in a different city. At a “page 3” soiree one day, Meera realizes that her husband is nowhere to be found. Finding themselves without a ride, Meera and son are dropped home by Professor J.A. Krishnamurthy (or Jak), a friend of the hostess. Meera later finds out that her husband has left her and her children to find himself a new life. She must now look after the household as Giri promises to be of little help. Thus she looks for employment and finds work as Jak’s research assistant.
Divorced Jak is in India looking after his disabled daughter Smriti. 19 year old Smriti living alone in India has met with an “accident” which has turned her into a paralyzed vegetable. No one knows how it happened, the police is of little help, but Jak is determined to find out the truth. As Meera goes about finding her feet as a single woman (her husband has a spiffy new apartment and a younger girlfriend) and Jak struggles with his parental rage at Smruti’s unhappy fate, both support each other in the search for closure.
“The Lilac House” is told from two points of view. There is Meera’s story and the characters within it. And then there is Jak’s story with his family and friends. Both characters are fleshed out by their memories of a time not so long ago. Some memories are happy and some are sad, but each tells us about Jak and Meera and how they came to be in the situations they are. I will say that both characters were likable and I felt empathy for them; Nair does develop them well.
I read Nair’s “Ladies Coupe” many years back and liked it very much. “The Lilac House” also touches upon the same topic – the status of women in Indian society. Via the two main characters, and the secondary female characters, Nair slowly brings into focus the plight of women in India. There is Meera who is savvy and sophisticated, but who as she herself puts it has gotten used to the comfort of being taken care of. Her children are torn between loyalty to both parents, and Nair refers to unjust expectations so entrenched in their (and our) minds :
Nayantara is clearly aghast at Nikhil’s line of thought. That Dad would make a new life was part of his leaving home. But Meera? Moms are meant to put aside dreams and grown old gracefully, like furniture.
There is Nina, Jak’s ex-wife, Indian born and living in the US, who considers herself an Indo-phile touting an affection for India she does not feel. There is Smriti herself, clear-hearted but rebellious, and naïve to the ways in which her egalitarian and liberal views will be perceived in a classist society. Jak’s elderly aunt Kala Chithi, who lives with Jak and Smriti has her own tale to tell – and I especially liked the way Nair told her story :
You didn’t know this, did you? Once I had hair that reached my knees. Hair that fell like a cascade when I unpinned it. Straight as rainwater hair, with not even a kink or even a wave. I could run a comb in one swift motion from the root to the tip. And every morning I would comb it though and braid it and pin it up. The weight of it made my head ache and my neck droop. The hair made me a demure girl first and then a demure woman. I was the daughter who pleased my father and later a wife who pleased her husband.
The stories are appealing and interestingly told, but over and above that, I like this book because of its feminist undertones. I found Nair’s writing familiar and slid into it – sort of – the comfort of recognizable things? It might be because the terrain was so well-known and I recognized Indian terms and languages and mannerisms. So, yes I was totally engrossed and speed-read my way through.The author manages to tell an interesting tale even as she skillfully embeds life’s truth’s in them; I’m nodding my head and rereading passages.Highly recommended.