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There’s more to the story in this debut novel about a dysfunctional family than its eccentric characters.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
September 7, 2013 12:07:44 am

Book: A Cool,Dark Place

Author: Supriya Dravid

Publisher: Random House India

Price: Rs 450

Pages: 242

Three things can be said about Supriya Dravid after a quick and then a more considered reading of her debut novel,A Cool,Dark Place,a chronicle of dysfunctions set rolling within his small circle of family and charmed acquaintances by the eccentric patriarch at the heart of the novel. It is a chronicle unearthed and pasted together by young Zephyr (she is on a kind of gap year from

university) as she comes to the patriarch,her grandfather Don’s sprawling,heaving home in Madras,as her mother and she try to come to terms with the dimensions of their grief at the loss of a loved one and the imminent loss too of Don.

In the course of those two-and-a half weeks of storytelling and manic scrambling for missing bits of the family narrative,every plotline she had taken for granted will be upended,sometimes to the reader’s genuine surprise but at others quite predictably so. The story she will be left with — all its sub-plots radiating from Don and his daughter’s estrangement decades ago — will ground her,give her assurance to carry on with a lighter and more complete heart,but one that she knows will be too much in its entirety for the rest of her circle to comprehend. What makes the novel tick and what equally holds it back from being the powerful story it could have been is those three things.

One,Dravid has a yen for houses,odd ones. There is,of course,the Madras abode,Don’s home and her mother’s childhood one,“a shambolic,Versaillic,moth-ridden empire of despair,where a tree rose to the ceiling in the centre of the living room… It was the kind of home where ghost stories were born and bred,where a child wandered to recover a stray never to return,it had haunted grounds forgotten by life.” The anarchy of its architecture and evolution is offset by Don’s obsessive need to archive and catalogue his papers and books,ready raw material for young Zephyr to literally paper over the gaps in the stories she will be told in the course of that fortnight. So much of Dravid’s writing is invested in the house that it really is a character,a breathing thing,a living being more than its inhabitants. To make the point,it can be contrasted with Zephyr’s own childhood home in Delhi,austere and haphazardly added to so that it resembled a “Jenga game”.

Two,as these quotes may give away,is Dravid’s love for description. She cannot have met a simile she does not like,and even includes a couple of cringe-worthy ones — but alongside the constant referencing of literary classics and contemporary culture,the resultant effect of breathlessness gives the novel an appealing,irresistible velocity.

Three,Dravid is enamoured of eccentric characters,each one (not just Don) is given space — and largeheartedly so — for a back story and to parade his or her unique tryst with life,so much so that the overlap diminishes some of the impact of the story and you wish she’d let some of them just be. But maybe that was Dravid’s intent,to show that the story is not — that it need not be — all.

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