In Anita Rau Badami's second novel, "The Hero's Walk," the disappointment that hangs over the characters is like the heat that chokes the Indian town, Toturpuram, in which they live: It's so oppressive that only something as brutally triumphant and all-consuming as a monsoon can free them from it. Some of the surprising characters in "The Hero's Walk" find this liberation; others remain slaves to their own shame. Badami, however, lights each of them with small hopes; their tongues lash out with startling irreverence and emotion, but the novel never staggers under the weight of melancholy.
Seven-year-old Nandana loses her parents in a car accident and must go live with her grandparents in India. Nandana has never met them. Her mother, Maya, a brilliant, accomplished and headstrong woman, was disowned after marrying a white man. When Nandana arrives, the family -- her distraught grandparents, her idealistic but lazy uncle, her bitter, wretched great-grandmother and her sad, love-starved spinster aunt -- must cope with this little ghost of Maya and the years of strange Western values that brought her more varied experiences and opportunity in her short life than many of the others could imagine. To her father, a dispirited man who writes "letters to the editor" under a pseudonym in order to feel alive, however, "dishonour was what [Maya] had given them in return for the independence they had granted her."
Although she tells a compelling story, Badami succeeds even more in her lush evocations of Indian life in "The Hero's Walk," which won the 2000 Commonwealth Prize for fiction. Dishing out often laugh-out-loud funny dialogue, she finds a wicked absurdity in the traditions of India, though the comedy masks larger, much more pervasive social conflicts. Relating the story of one character's birth and his parents' high expectations of him, Badami tells of their visit to a lying astrologer-priest whose predictions of grandeur Indian parents so desperately cling to: "He shuffled his feet and became ingratiating -- a signal for his clients to pay him for his services. The priest found it demeaning to ask for money for himself ... After all, he was a Brahmin, not a trader-caste fellow who had no shame asking for this and that." Many of Badami's characters suffer from this blinding, sometimes corrupting, allegiance to the caste system. After he strikes his wife, a husband reflects ashamedly, "Now he had hit her in front of his whole family and the maidservant and the man who sold them rice."
Of course, the house in which the family lives, the Big House, once magnificent and now crumbling, hovers over them like the India of old. Only after a bizarre (and truly revolting) catastrophe destroys the interior of the mansion can the family gain relief from the strain of their history. Ultimately, they find heroism in small gestures and in their own courage to move on and defy the stars and, most significantly, their own bondage to regret.
Next: A May-December romance in a post-Apartheid South Africa where violence is always ready to erupt.