(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)
Tishani Doshi’s debut opens with Prem Kumar Patel, 47 years old, and his wife, Trishala, sending off their oldest son, Babo, to England, with three younger children remaining at home. The novel begins with a voyage and contains many more.
At the time, the family is “completely innocent of the tumultuous changes [Babo’s] departure was going to bring upon them all”, but the departure is just one catalyst for change in this family saga.
The Pleasure Seekers contains countless emotional and geographical transformations, shifting from Sylvan Lodge in Madras to London (with stopovers and detours), from childhood to adulthood, from young lover and friend to committed spouse and parent.
Here is how Sylvan Lodge is described early in the novel:
“Sylvan Lodge sat at the corner of the street, surrounded by droopy ashoka trees, perched like a wedding cake jhimak-jhimaking in a bright new coat of pista-green paint.”
And here is how India is experienced by a young European who has been raised on romantic ideas about the country but is completely unprepared for its reality:
“Bombay — queen of all India’s cities: a city of cages and slums, film stars and vagrants. A city [she] would want to forget about as soon as she landed in it because it wasn’t the India of her imagination. She’d imagined tree-lined avenues and mint-green houses. Lizards and peacocks. Not this. Not this.”
Setting is vitally important to this story but, at the heart of The Pleasure Seekers is a particular way of loving somebody. Here is how Ba, Babo’s grandmother, describes it:
“What you have, it’s something rare. We call it Ekam. They say that you may experience it once in your life, or not at all. Some have described it as entering into a dark cave with no beginning or end. Some have said it’s like feeling your heart burn on a slow fire.”
The way in which Babo loves is something else which the reader witnesses transforming throughout the novel. When we first meet him, he “was used to falling instantly in love”, but that, too, shifts as the reader turns the pages of The Pleasure Seekers.
More specifically, the reader observes this change when Babo meets Siân, who has spent the majority of her life in Nercwys, but has left it behind (much as Babo left Madras in India) for London, which her father considers a city “full of sin and lost souls”.
This is a transformative change in Siân’s life, too, for she spent her earliest years in a house without a bathroom or electricity and had never eaten in a restaurant until she moved to London and began working as a secretary. Although on the same island, these two ways of living would feel as though they are worlds apart for her.
But just as Babo’s departure from India might be seen as the main catalyst, there are many decisions, beyond geography, which have resulted in the paths of these two young people crossing, and their respective departures are just one more adjustment in a series of experiments and commitments.
And while their respective landscapes are vitally important to Babo and Siân, it is the collision of their experiences that is most fascinating for the reader. The experiences of a younger character that readers meet in the second half of the novel, born and raised in India but in a home with Anne of Green Gables and proper English stories on the bookshelves, demonstrate this perfectly:
“For Bean, being in Anjar was like living in an Enid Blyton story, except instead of a magic faraway tree there was the tree of flying foxes behind the Amba Mata Temple. And instead of picnics on rolling green meadows with sticky gingerbread and ham rolls, there was dinner under the jamun tree with Ba hand-feeding them balls of spicy tamarind rice in turn.”
As this passage illustrates, Tishani Doshi’s style is rather traditional but with the occasional burst of fancy, as with the connections drawn between the faraway tree and tamarind rice balls.
Another reader might be more enamoured than I with her use of language, for Tishani Doshi has made an effort to develop a distinct cast to her storyteller’s tone.
“Here it was easy: all she had to do was pick a single one of these flowers — jasmine, mimosa, frangipani — and crush the heady smell of it in her palms to feel like she was touching the inside of Babo’s smooth brown skin.”
It arouses the senses and evokes the richness of its Madras setting.
Nonetheless, the language alone did not draw me in the way that the poetic prose of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss captured me as a reader.
Throughout The Pleasure Seekers, I was a reader on the margins. Tishani Doshi did create a space for me as an explorer; I could have settled into these new territories alongside the character(s) who are equally unfamiliar with this landscape and culture. But, instead, I followed this story with interest, but without a passion for its inhabitants.
Perhaps I require a more insistent tone. Perhaps I’ve become lazy in the wake of the sophistication and intensity of other family sagas, like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. (And perhaps I’m simply book-weary: I have been reading fiercely this Orange season.)
Perhaps the blurb and the buzz raised my reader’s expectations too high, but I wanted to be captivated and delighted like Salman Rushdie said that he was. So while I found the novel pleasant, indeed, I was seeking true pleasure rather than pleasantries.
Originality Salman Rushdie endorses debut novelist
Readability Family saga, formal yet familiar
Author’s voice Traditional, with a flair
Narrative structure Linear, across the generations
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Shared Hay-on-Wye stage with Seamus Heaney and Margaret Atwood