Spanning four decades from 1968 to the present day, Tishani Doshi’s debut novel is a tale of forbidden love as experienced by one Indian family. Babo Patel travels from Madras to London in the late 1960s, to work and study, and finds himself adrift in an alien environment. The Patels are a Jain family, but Babo indulges in cigarettes, alcohol and meat. Most horrifying to his family, however, is the news that Babo has fallen in love with a foreigner, the Welsh girl Sian.
The Patel family, led by the patriarchal Prem Kumar, lay down certain conditions for Babo and Sian. The couple pass their test with flying colours; and not only that, when Sian eventually comes to visit Babo in Madras, she decides that she wants to live in India when they get married, and raise their children there.
Although she is an award-winning poet, Doshi doesn’t overburden her story with metaphor and simile, as might have been expected. Despite the central theme, that of forbidden love, Doshi maintains a light touch throughout that often borders on whimsy. There is also plenty of humour, a good deal of it directed at perceptions and prejudices, particularly those preconceived notions of India that Westerners tend to harbour. That said, Doshi also has a fine time inverting the snobbery, and showing the Patel family to be as ignorant about Britain and Western customs as Westerners are about India.
The setting, on the south-east coast of India, is pleasingly exotic, particularly as the story takes us back to the ’60s and ’70s. Doshi sketches a bustling, colourful city of Madras without ever overloading the detail, allowing us to absorb the strange and wonderful sights through Sian’s eyes.
The story also moves back and forth to Britain, first to London - a rather grey and drab London, despite the fact that Babo and Sian meet at the height of the Swinging Sixties - and then the village of Nercwys in Wales, Sian’s home place. While Nerccwys is pleasingly quaint and rural, it suffers by comparison with Madras, and particularly with Anjar, its rural equivalent in India, where Babo’s beloved grandmother Ba lives.
As well as the main characters of Babo and Sian and their daughters Mayuri and Bean, Doshi also introduces us to a teeming cast. Chief among them are Sian’s parents Bryn and Nerys, who are understandably worried about how their daughter is going to make a life for herself in a strange culture; Babo’s brothers and sisters, who are a raucous bunch; and Babo’s grandmother, Ba, who plays a quasi-mystical role. She can, for example, smell people coming while they are still miles away, and has a sixth sense for danger, particularly when it is likely to impact on her extended family. Of all the secondary characters, Ba is the most vividly drawn; indeed, there are times when she is the most illuminating of all Doshi’s characters.
While the novel makes for pleasant reading, there is a telling lack of friction in the story. Few obstacles are put in the lovers’ way once they pass their initial test; Sian adapts to living as a Jain wife in Madras with what appears to be effortless ease; the pair meet with very little in the way of bigotry or prejudice; fate does not intervene to invest the tale with a tragic twist. The narrative unfolds very smoothly, and while there are deaths to be mourned as the years pass and people age and sicken, the tale lacks the kind of tension that develops when a character’s morals, principles or even physical limits are tested. The one hurdle the couple have to overcome is dealt with very early in the story, and it is cleared with considerable ease. While that makes for a romantic tale, it doesn’t make for a very satisfying one. The novel does end with a cataclysmic event, but it arrives far too late to influence the tone of the story.
The absence of significant tragedy and conflict in the narrative may well reflect Doshi’s own experience of growing up a ‘hybrid’, as she puts it, in a mixed-race marriage. If that is the case, then it’s hard to begrudge her what appears to have been an idyllic childhood. As the old cliché has it, though, happy childhoods don’t necessarily make for great novels.
THE PLEASURE SEEKERS is many things - sweet, nice, exotic and endearing. But despite its theme of forbidden love, this is not a novel to excite the passions. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.