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.