P.G. Wodehouse not only inspired but also unconsciously influenced generations of writers. Apart from the pale imitations of his short stories published in magazines and journals, shades of Wodehouse’s writing have coloured even the novels of popular and celebrated authors – the motifs, the metaphors, the style in places. The novel No Onions nor Garlic by Srividya Natarajan evokes Wodehouse in its theme and style of writing and yet has a unique voice all of its own.
The plot revolves around caste politics at the English Department at a University in Chennai headed by the formidable Professor Ram, the self appointed champion of Hindu religious values and author of ‘Daddy What is the Significance of the Poonal and One Hundred Other Questions About Hinduism’.
Professor Ram is seeking suitable matches for his NRI children – wilful daughter Jayanthi and divorcee son Chunky. An advertisement in The Bindhu newspaper for a mutual, pure Brahmin (no onions nor garlic) alliance brings Professor Ram’s student Sundar and his sister Uma as prospective matches. But Sundar is in love with his dalit classmate Jeeva.
Professor Ram finds that his supreme authority in the university premises is challenged by the dalit students when they install a statue of Ambedkar and decides to take counter action, setting up a reluctant Sundar as the leader of the opposing Brahmin group. A mix-up over a tiffin of Jagadambal jump start your day idlis bring Professor Ram into direct confrontation with his arch enemy Professor Laurentia Arul, which leads into some unexpected twists and encounters that culminate in a cinematic, hilarious ending.
There are a number of side characters – The grumpy Mrs.Ram who visits a shady Godman Sri Sri Sri Sastrigal to keep herself ‘purified’, Sundar’s ex-naxalite father who likes to wear a helmet while entertaining visitors at home, his harried mother Sachu who habitually resorts to melodramatic emotional blackmail of her family, his eccentric brother Kicha, the runaway sculptor Akilan and Caroline the visiting scholar from Canada who views Indian food as ’95 percent life-threatening microbes’ among others. Among the most interesting of these side characters are Mr. Seshadri, the corrupt alcoholic builder and Thiru, the auto driver who makes a guest appearance throughout the book at important situations. All the characters are cartoon-like caricatures caught in incredibly funny situations, but the underlying tone of the novel is that of a sharp, though not unkind social satire.
The city of Chennai almost comes across as a character in the novel – not only in the occasional descriptions of places but the thoughts, the attitudes, the slang terms, the regional anecdotes, the local idiosyncrasies, the little eccentricities that are native to a specific place that are inherently a part of the narrative. Almost every page invokes a smile and very often, loud laughter. This is a brilliant, genuinely funny novel which reads almost as good as Wodehouse at his very best.
I have bought several copies of this book over the years as gifts for friends and family. Almost all the reviews of the book are uniformly good and applaud it as a ‘laugh-riot’, but I am surprised that more people are not raving about it. This is one of those books that deserves to be on many a bestseller list, if only for the pure laughter that it evokes in almost every other page.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality