Dahanu Road, by Anosh Irani

Copy courtesy Doubleday Canada -- click cover for more info

There is an intriguing subset in the roster of contemporary Canadian authors: born in India or Sri Lanka, they now call Canada home, but their fiction is a look back to the lands of their birth. Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance and others) is best known; Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy) also has his fans. Anosh Irani, born in Bombay but a resident of Vancouver since 1998, is a relatively new addition to the list. The Song of Kahunsha (2006) (which I have not read) was published in 13 languages and featured in a number of contests, including CBC’s popular Canada Reads. Dahanu Road is his latest book and he again returns to India for this story — it seemed like a reasonable place to start in experiencing this author.

Like both the Mistry and Selvadurai novels that I have cited, Dahanu Road is an exploration of dislocation and class/racial tension. Given my recent reading, specifically Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (set in Jamaica), it is another timely reminder that dislocation and class tension are themes that are played out in many places in the world.

Dahanu Road explores the story of three generations of Persians, a family who are now landowners in Dahanu, a farm and market town just outside Bombay. Grandfather Shapur, oppressed as a Zoroastrian in Persia, moved the family to India when his son, Aspi, was just a youngster. He prospered as a merchant who branched into liquor sales, which in turn led to seizing land from his debtor customers. The oppressed Irani family in its turn became an oppressor — in the present time of the novel, Shapur is on his last legs, his son Aspi is haunted by images of past repression of the Warlis who now work the family estate in slave-like conditions, and Aspi’s son Zairos is the young adult who will soon inherit the land (and all its tainted history and the conflict that has left as its product).

In the opening sections of the novel, author Irani (sorry, we have three very different types of Iranis in this review) is particularly good at describing aspects of the multi-cultural cocktail that this dislocation has produced:

As soon as Zairos was downstairs, Aspi Irani started singing. His songs were a strange concoction indeed, a blend of three languages, Hindi, English, and Gujarti. Zairos always compared his father’s songs to country liquor: Use anything you can find — orange peels, battery acid, even leather slippers. Then squeeze hard and let its juice make your head spin. This morning, Aspi Irani’s song included two main ingredients — tennis and his old Morris. The two rhymed, and as he sang, the cigarette fell out of his mouth. Then he stopped abruptly and said to Zairos, “I think your mother is having an affair.” He said this every day, whenever Mithoo went to the bazaar.

Just as Levy pays some sympathetic attention to the internal conflicts that the British slaveowners face in Jamaica, author Irani develops an awareness of the guilty side of the males who are his central characters:

Aspi Irani loved the idea of sabotage. He yearned for a situation to ruin, as long as there was no permanent damage. No matter where he went, be it marketplace or wedding hall, he was an imp straight from the underworld, full of guile and mischief. Of course, with his thick forearms and massive calves, he was too large to be an imp, but he had an imp’s demeanour, from the sleazy to the sublime. When he was in action, his eyebrows arched like a piece of Mughal architecture; it was the arch of knowing that came upon the countenance of only those who knew secrets, of men who found beauty in the orchestration of disaster.

Those two quotes supply an indication of Anosh Irani’s prose style that any potential reader of this book should be prepared for: he has a fondness for simile, metaphor and symbolism that grows as the book progresses. While it is used primarily for illustration and narrative depth in the early parts of the book, the symbolism in particular becomes even more of a factor (for this reader, often an intrusive one) as the novel progresses. Of course, in a book concerning the impact of oppression, oppressive language could well be considered a useful device.

While the novel is told from the point of view of those with power (unlike Levy’s book which is told from the other side), it does require a counterpoint for the author to establish and explore the tension part of the story. That comes in the form of a Warli family that parallels the three generations of Iranis. The first present day incident in the book is the sudden suicide of Ganpat, a tribal worker on the estate, whose body is discovered by Zairos. It is claimed by Ganpat’s daughter, Kusum; as the story proceeds, we discover that the three generations of both families have interacted with each other, usually in classic oppressor-oppressed form. It is hardly a surprise that the new generation will be experiencing it in a way that is much different from their grandfather or father.

Dahanu is a backward, isolated agricultural community and the author does not interject any global aspect to his tale — the tensions of his protaganists are those of a tightly-contained community. That does not make them any less serious for the individuals involved; indeed, in many ways, that containment makes them even worse. While Zairos has to live with a situation he has inherited, he does not know what has produced it. His elders have not only not prepared him, they have consciously buried some of the black acts of their past, so the young landowner not only needs to figure out his present circumstances, he needs to discover his past.

That rather slender story line, coupled with the author’s penchant for literary devices that sometimes verge on the florid, become the biggest challenge for the book. While I very much appreciated the way that the premise of the novel was established, I am afraid that it became heavy sledding as it wore on. I am sure that for some readers that will become a significant positive of the book; unfortunately I was not engaged enough to find it worthwhile and it became even more of a distraction as the ending of the book approached.

Dahanu Road has back cover blurbs from Rawi Hage, Wayson Choy and Yann Martel — three more Canadian authors who have looked at the notion of dislocation, albeit in a different way than Irani (or Mistry or Selvadurai for that matter). Anosh Irani deserves to be compared to any of those five authors. This novel is not up to their best work, but it does have some strengths of its own. In a country like Canada where we are experiencing a new notion of diversity, paying attention to the work of authors like these six is important — they are major contributors to what Canada is today.

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16 Responses to “Dahanu Road, by Anosh Irani”

  1. whisperinggums Says:

    Thanks for this Kevin…I haven’t heard of this writer at all, but have noticed that you do have your share of sub-continent exiles over there. You have Michael Ondaatje there too, don’t you.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wg: Ondaatje too and I neglected to mention him :-). I’ve read all his books but he is not one of my favorites. It has occured to me that one of the roles the we in the Old Dominions perform is to serve as home to authors like the ones I cited in this review who will look back at the “other” world.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    like sound of this book ,just start looking at your blog know rob at robaroundbooks a fan of yours should have start looking earlier .the seems a huge group of ex pat writers in canada at moment

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is an interesting phenomenon — and has certainly produced some very good novels.

  5. Sharad Says:

    I have not read the book,but exited with the title and wish to have a copy to read as soon as possible. I belong to Dahanu road, and therofore think myself close to the author.

    Sharad Sonone, Dahanu road

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Sharad. If you do find a copy, I would be most interested in how the book reads from your perspective.

  7. mistyx Says:

    Having seen the Author grow up as a sibling I am so looking forward to read this book.

    I am from Dahanu and Yes I am an Irani.

    • GiovannifromItaly Says:

      Very happy to see these comments! I’m from Italy, marine engineer, 56 y.o. and go to Mumbai

      once a year since 2009, for the boat show in Feb.: I’ll be there on the 22nd.

      I started reading Indian books since I find India a fascinating country and try to get the

      feeling of it through its modern authors.

      I “picked Irani’s book from the shelf, at the bookstore” having no idea of what it was about.

      I read it in Italian with much interest, and loved it.

      I’m not so deep in literature to make comments like Sad’s, that sound knowledgeable and

      professional. I liked the story “as is”; I learnt about the Worlies, the cickoos, the arrak

      “liquor”, that there is a difference between the Parsis and the Iranis, etc. etc., and the

      story of a population that has suffered and still suffers, according to Wikipedi page on

      Dahanu Road. Somewhat like American Indians, it sounds like.

      To me this book is ethnologically important and interesting, I have no means to judge how

      accurate the historical references are. At the end of the book I was happy, I did some

      research to improve my knowledge, maybe I will drop at Dahanu Road on Feb 22nd, to see what

      it’s like. For sure after reading the book a know a little bit more of India than before, so,

      to me, the book is quite positive. For sure, to me the main character of the novel is…the

      cickoo tree, that I don’t know, and that seems to be so important for the economy of this

      rural area. You can smell it reading this book!

      I wonder how the Antanis of Dahanu Rd. took it: would they consider it accurate, misleading,

      offensive, or…telling true stories that the kids should not be told? From what I’m reading

      from other sources the Parsis have quite a good reputation in India and the rivalry with the

      Antanis (that reading the book seems to come from the Antanis ) seems to be a mild and

      indulgent one. The few I met in Mumbai are nice, open and respectful people, gentle and

      friendly.

      For sure there are “good” Antanis and “bad” ones, as it happens with all kinds of human

      beings, so Anosh should not be blamed for depicting them under a non-positiva aspect, ( it was

      not his aim, since at the end of the book he dedicates it to them ) and the “good” ones should

      be proud of this writer that I consider brilliant and doing a good service to his homeland.

      Just for your knowledge: the title in Italian is “Destini di vetro” which means “Glass

      destinies” as to highlight the frailty of the destinies of both the oppressors and the

      oppressed, all victims of the events. Thanks for your attention.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    mistyx: Please come back and let us know what you think of the book when you have read it. I would be very interested in the observations of someone who knows the area. Thank you for commenting.

  9. Harshal patil Says:

    Haven’t heard about the author yet, but very exited about the book b’coz i belong to Dahanu road.

  10. Des Says:

    I was gifted this book recently by a friend from Mumbai.

    It has to be said that I found it very hard work and I can’t think why HarperCollins published it.

    The dust jacket described it as an ‘epic’. While the arch of the story did cover the lives of 3 generations of this family, epic it was not.

    The bones of a story worth telling do exist but Irani, in my view, failed to pull it off. Irani’s characters are one dimensional and without distinctive voices. The book is over-researched and one can see all the stitching; the author seems intent on cramming in everthing he’s found about or known about, say , the Zoroastrians, often shoving a square peg in a round hole. The attention to the precise and subtle use of language is woefully lacking; metaphors and similies of very poor quality are often employed and the effect is often ‘cringe-making’. Why say ‘he wiped his hands on his red shirt’? Do we need to know the shirt was ‘red’? A well strangled cliche but one that bears repetition is that would-be writers should learn how to ‘kill their babies’. I’m afriad this is a skill that has eluded Irani.The book could easily have been half the size it ended up being.

    This sort of theme has been covered by great writers like Tolstoy, Rushdie, Isabelle Allende and Gabriele Garcia Marquez to name but a few. Anyone embarking on a similar enterprise had better do something damned good or not bother.

    I hope this criticism is taken in the constructive spirit it has been given.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Des: Thank you for the thoughtful comment — I certainly feel it was offered in a constructive spirit. It has been a while since I read the book, but I recall sharing some of your observations, although perhaps I found them less of a problem as overall I thought the book worthwhile.

  12. GiovannifromItaly Says:

    Sorry ! While I was writing my comment I received an e-mail from a person called ” Antani” and then kept writing “Antani” instead of “Irani” in my post. I mistook also Des with Sad making reference to another comment! Really sorry about that, please consider this amendment. it’s always better to do one thing at the time, really!

  13. Larysa Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    just started reading the novel…..I’m an avid fan of Indian lit., so I’m looking forward to finishing it! I’ll keep you posted.

  14. GiovannifromItaly Says:

    As I had anticipated in my post of February 8, 2011 at 3:52 pm I did succeed in visiting Dahanu on March 9th. Please visit this link for a short video about it.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Giovanni: Thanks for the link.

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