Mahesh Rao's debut novel 'The Smoke is Rising' delves into the daily existence of three women living in Mysore: Susheela, a lonely, aged widow; her domestic help, the solitary and mysterious Uma; and Mala, a woman of humble origin married to the resentful Girish, an embittered bureaucrat working at the local electricity distribution company.
The narrative zooms out to the bigger picture, where the traditional and the modern co-exist — the city is a multi-layered character unto itself. The flames of change are fanned by an end-justifies-the-means vision of development held by a determined few such as Venky Gowda, the brain behind the amusement park HeritageLand, "a world where cutting-edge technology could harness the drama of the ancient epics and transport his compatriots to an alternate reality". Unfortunately for him, there's the small matter of the overwhelming negative public opinion towards the project and the fact that the land he has zeroed in on is already occupied. It's a setback that requires more...persistence.
From opening to finish, there is an air of authenticity that permeates every page of 'The Smoke is Rising'. The multiple protagonists have been deftly crafted by Rao, who has an eye for detail and a knack for injecting colour into the mundane without letting it take a toll on the pace of his plot.
With his female characters, Rao penetratingly paints dreary portraits of women mired in isolation and ennui. And when Susheela meets Jaydev, an elderly widower in whom she finds a soul she can relate to, the electric and tender manner in which the relationship blossoms is a highlight of Rao's enviable styling.
The book's dialogue is organic and a far cry from the stilted utterances of characters in lesser works of fiction which feature a similar setting. Besides, the narrative is laden with observations of the we-are-like-that-only variety. Sample: "The editor of the Mysore Evening Sentinel was a quiet man. His staff in the newspaper's offices on MG Road read an array of subtle signals in his silences, and over time endowed him with the powers of a mind reader a clairvoyant and a skilled agony aunt. While in private he would probably have admitted that he was deficient in all these areas, there was no doubt that in one field he was a true master: leaning back, keeping his ears open and letting warring parties fling prodigious amounts of mud in his presence."
The wry narrative seamlessly accommodates the more tragic, heart-wrenching moments, which catch you off guard. For some who don't appreciate ambiguity, however, the character sketching might be a tad too light-handed, especially in the case of the men. For example, while one understands why the overqualified Girish feels passed over professionally, what are the roots of his reproachful nature and emotional frigidity towards his wife whom he regards as little more than a schoolgirl?
In something that gives the story a filmic quality, the book's many minor characters, which are impressionistically rendered, add flavour but don't contribute significantly to the overall tale which, as it turns out, winds up without a sense of finality or resolution — a sensible, but tantalising move.
All in all, 'The Smoke is Rising' is a more than worthwhile read for those on the lookout for fresh, funny and reflective fiction. It should be an enlightening, ironic read for those looking for clues into the grim reality that is India, a rising superpower.