I was building up quite a hoard at a book sale and going crazy trying to find the fine balance between my budget and my wants.The problem is that the two remain as far away from each other as possible. The turmoil in my mind was suddenly stilled at the sight of yellow writing on a beautiful blue cover and an intriguing title, ‘Meanwhile,Upriver‘. The author Chatura Rao, was unknown to me, however the summary on the back cover had me hooked. Little did I know that I had just picked up a gem.
Chatura works magic with her words. I have yet to read a more interesting acknowledgements section. She thanks among many others,”Manisha and Rajo for taking care of my home and raising my children with diligence and love. They folded up the daily chores and shook free my time to write.” What beautiful words ! Without further ado I started reading.
‘Meanwhile, Upriver’ is set in Benaras considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities in HInduism. It tells the story of thirty-eight year old Yamini and eleven year old Shiva who lead disparate lives in the same city. Yamini is an unmarried school teacher who has never known love. She’s described as being ‘fat and sharp-tongued’. Yamini is a part of the multitude who inhabit Benaras, while Shiva is an orphan whose adoptive father is Bhyom Baba, a very ambitious and influential sadhu. Yamini’s and Shiva’s lives are like two trains heading for a collision. The narrative reminded me of ‘The Homing Pigeons‘, zigzagging between the protagonists.
Plump,motherless Yamini, has always felt like an outsider in her father’s family. He is so immersed in his work that he hardly acknowledges her existence. ” But fathers are not accountable for the time they spend with their children. Nobody records their absence,so mine got away with his”. Ridiculed and neglected, she became a child who kept to herself. Later she and her father moved away to live separately. He treats her like an adult and other children shun her because of a disfigurement on her face. An intense feeling of loneliness drives her to seek solace in food which in turn makes her obese. The adult Yamini becomes a teacher and continues living with her father following almost the same routines of her childhood. Her life is touched with colour with the advent of Duncan, a foreign researcher. She feels light and loved.
Shiva on the contrary, leads a happy life in a very unconventional place, an ashram which has sadhus and devotees forming a largely floating population. He carries a hope that someday he will meet his real mother. Bhyom Baba is a larger than life figure who calls Shiva his bastard son, since it was he who found the baby while bathing in the River Ganga.Shiva’s life is filled with the most fantastic characters, charas smoking sadhus, devotees from all walks of life, a kind Muslim potter who is Bhyom Baba’s faithful, ashram servants who pamper him and school friends from normal families. In spite of this bizarre upbringing Shiva manages to retain his innocence and zest for life. ” I didn’t understand why anyone would not want to come back to this world. Whatever my problems were …………, my life was still fun“.
Shiva’s and Yamini’s journey towards each other gains momentum when he’s chosen to play the role of the young Hanuman in the Ram Lila celebrations and he befriends shy Shantanu who plays the role of Janaki, Lord Ram’s wife. The climax shatters both their lives and the tremors shake the foundations of their loved ones lives too. The last part of the synopsis on the back cover best sums up this beauty of a book. “ Meanwhile Upriver is about two outsiders struggling to find the courage to swim upriver, till an unforeseen connection brings them together. Resonating with the sights and sounds of an ancient place in the heart of modern India, this remarkable debut novel tells a story that is at once poignant and captivating”.
I loved ‘ Meanwhile, Upriver’ and it has firmly lodged itself on my list of favourites. Chatura is an amazing writer who breathes life into her characters.I felt as if I had a ringside view of their lives. Along-with Yamini and Shiva, Benaras too plays a very important role in this book. It forms the canvas on which we see the characters playing out their stories. The staging of the Ram Lila, the working of ashrams, life in religion soaked Benaras, the closely entwined nature of politics and religion and the beautiful imagery make this book fascinating and unputdownable.
I’m so thankful to Reshmy of the Tales Pensieve for her IQR Challenge. I submitted my name for a lark, and ended up starting a blog ! Thanks to her I’ve started acquainting myself with Indian authors.