Risk at the riverside
SAVAGES AND OTHER NEIGHBORS By Michael Chacko Daniels, Writers Workshop, Rs 1,000
- Published 15.06.18
Solomon Jacob, the deliciously vulnerable yet nobly determined hero of Michael Chacko Daniels's novel can claim direct literary descent from the Anglo-Malay H. Hatterr of G.V. Desani's 1948 novel, All About H. Hatterr as well as from the Anglo-Indian Eugene Trotter of I. Alan Sealy's The Trotter-nama, published in 1988. In the matter of hyphenated identities, Solomon is rather more advanced than his literary forebears, for he is an American citizen born of a Malayali father settled in America and a Dutch-American mother. His frequent childhood visits to see his grandparents in Kerala give him deep roots in two cultures, in both of which he is equally at home. Only when he brings his grandparents over to the small town of Riverside, Michigan, "God's city by the river", after his parents have been shot dead in Chicago, does Solomon begin his struggle to reconcile the enormous differences in perception and understanding he has to confront on both sides of his heritage. Savages and Other Neighbors is, from this point of view, a kind of coming-of-age narrative, not just Solomon's but of his neighbours, his colleagues, even his enemies.
But the novel is much more. It harks back in spirit to the great Indian-English comic novel of Desani and Sealy - with just an occasional hint of Rushdie's early wildness - suggesting simultaneously a reconstruction of history and a quest for balance, peace, love and ultimately, the self. Neither Solomon's grandmother, loving, penetratingly intelligent, smelling faintly of coconut and cumin, with earlobes hanging down to her shoulders that make her look like a savage to Jennifer - Solomon's comrade-in-arms who is driven to despair by desire-rage for him - nor his mountainous, dark, earnest grandfather, determined to bring the errant Americans who killed his son back to the ways of Christ, can be accepted easily by friend or foe. The suspicion and hatred range from the purely funny to the chillingly sinister, and Solomon, beautiful, dreamy, forever unprepared but always positive must find his way through this confusion.
He himself attracts the hatred of the powerful, because he has founded a group determined to restore abandoned old houses that are being regularly burnt down and turn them into cheap housing for the poor. His innocence inspires many, but that does not save him from violence. In true comic tradition, the violence of racism and capitalist greed get somehow mixed up with sexual revenge and that, too, misplaced. There can be no comedy without the delusions of desire and the droll ambiguity of sexualities, and Daniels's narrative alternates, at certain intense moments, between pure lyricism and frank hilarity. And till the end we cannot be quite sure where on the spectrum of sexes and sexuality the 'golden' boy-man, Solomon, resides.