The Strike explores the idea of love in a Tamil family. Love here operates in the context of kinship ties and cultural symbols and is as much a learned experience as it is considered to be an innate expression in the West.
The novel follows Hari, a twelve year old Brahmin boy, in 1980s India as he tries to negotiate the religious, linguistic, class and sexual politics of the adult world around him. His experiment in eating a fish leads to the accidental death of his paternal grandmother; his preference for Hindi, the national language, over his mother tongue Tamil leads to slanderous graffiti against his family in Madras and his friendship with the family maid, Sivagami, lands him in trouble with Vishu, a young Tamil film fan, crook and a minor political functionary.
Matters come to a head when M.G.R., a film star turned politician dies and his supporters lead by Vishu declare a strike, trapping Hari and his mother on a train. Hari uses the train ride and the strike to befriend the handsome Mukund, a young man travelling to Madras to become a film hero and the hijra Radha, a eunuch, and through them learn about forbidden sexualities. Later, with some help from his uncle, Hari manages to fulfill his childhood wish of riding an engine with disastrous consequences. His engine ride and the resulting confrontation with the strikers allows Hari to learn how the interactions among individuals shaped through kinship ties and rigid hierarchies of class are collapsing in modern India.
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Life is good . . . and bad
Born and raised in India, Toronto writer Anand Mahadevan opens his first novel with a boy of 7 dawdling through a rail yard in the Indian city of Nagpur. The prologue brims with thematic teasers: ambition, family, sensuality, shame and guilt, danger — all seen through the eyes of a naughty child getting soot on his holiday suit. It’s about innocence straining to escape its dull, regimented prison.
The Strike casts the reader into 1980s India, where 12-year old Hari must make sense of a world in which borders between languages, classes, and religions are still part of everyday reality. The narrative opens with a moment of transgression and tragedy when Hari, who’s a Brahmin and a vegetarian, eats forbidden fish and inadvertently causes the death of his grandmother. This propels Hari to question the arbitrary rules and divisions that govern his life and the rest of Indian society.
For the most part, Toronto author Mahadevan effectively uses his child narrator to survey and critique the hypocrisy and viciousness of his birth country’s economic, social, and political structures. While the adults take most of these things for granted, Hari wants reasoned logic where so often there is none. Hari’s desire for truth unmasks societal lies in a convincing way, although his constant demands that his elders explain their actions and assumptions are a little heavy-handed. Hari takes on more complexity as a character when the loss of his innocence leads to a much more ambivalent and fraught understanding of both personal and societal conflict.
The novel thus charts the turmoil within both the nation and Hari himself. The plot is straightforward but compelling, especially in the railway scenes, in which Hari finds himself in the centre of a tumultuous political strike. There, in the heightened atmosphere of the train, Hari must confront his unknowing complicity in the violence and corruption that accompany his privilege. The changes within Hari take on an urgency through the careful use of language that gives not only the sensory aspects of his journey, but also the emotional ones.
In the end, resolution eludes Hari. Instead, he must leave the societal tangles as they are and strike out on a new path for himself.
A delicate portrait of a boy’s inner world
Hari is a naughty boy. He has secretly slipped out of a family wedding ceremony to take a pee in the nearby railyard. He’ll be missed soon, but he can’t resist a further boyish transgression: “Once the rivulet of yellow disappeared into the gravel bed, he pulled down his pants and sat on a rail…. Hari liked the feel of the cold smooth iron against his skin. As his body warmed a section of the track, Hari inched forward so he could yet again feel the cold of metal.” Soon he’s embroiled in conversation with a gruff train engineer — and imagining escape in his big iron beast.
The first pages of Toronto writer Anand Mahadevan’s debut novel bristle with thematic teasers: ambition, family, sensuality, shame and guilt, danger — all seen through the eyes of a straying child getting soot on his wedding suit.
It’s all about innocence hoping to escape its dull, regimented prison.
Hari escapes decisively in the next chapter. In the kitchen of a family friend he eats some fried fish, defying an arcane religious stricture. The act momentarily frees him, then a disastrous mix of consequences and bad luck binds him with more guilt. His grandmother’s accidental death seems Hari’s fault, but we’re steered away from that dark place. Hari’s father tells him he must never feel guilt for the accident. It’s a tip off; this novel is less about family dysfunction than the hypocrisies of a whole society.
Hari can’t help thinking his way around the absurdities of Brahmin religious rituals. As the family arrives by train in predawn Benaras with grandmother’s ashes, their first impulse is to head to the Ganges for ritual bathing. Later, in the light of morning, Hari sees sewage pouring into the river from a huge pipe just upstream from the bathing ghats. He’s appalled and draws his devout great-grandad into debate — quickly stifled by the old man’s dogma. The holy Ganges, he says, cleans away every stain: “Even the dirt becomes holy and good.”
Skip ahead five years and Hari’s in Madras, at his maternal grandparents’ house. Catching a family servant, Vishu, in the act of theft, he’s shoved by the young man onto a bed and has his testicles squeezed as a warning. The violation scares Hari, but stirs something much deeper. “Look at you,” sneers Vishu, “aroused by a man’s touch.”
It’s not till a third of the way into the book that we see this first hint that Hari may grow up queer, but it reads true — we recall that opening interplay of warm bum and cool railway track from a new angle. Later at the cinema with his best friend, Mohan, a brothel scene triggers some boyish grappling, which ends with Mohan’s palm resting on Hari’s thigh. “He squirmed in his seat and the hand moved higher until it touched the hem of his shorts.” The chapter ends with escalating hand play — a homoerotic cliffhanger.
The next section, titled “Pacam (Attachment),” suggests a growing affection. But Mohan is now conspicuous by his absence. Instead we join Hari and his mother on another train to Madras. Whatever queer desire might be churning inside our pubescent hero is quickly subverted by a crossdressing hijra — a ritually castrated eunuch who is said to hold powers that can either grace men with sons or curse them with impotence. Sashaying through the railway cars, she’s extorting money from gullible men with threats of emasculation.
Then a railway strike brought on by a political crisis strands the train. Along with some dramatic scuffles between strikers and irate passengers, we’re treated to a touchingly described solo masturbation session in the first-class toilet. It’s Hari’s first-ever orgasm. A sensitively observed mix of the rapturous and the yucky, the scene is both comical and faintly sad.
This book opens with great richness and promise, offering arresting character work and vivid pictures of a fraught society. As a coming-of-age story, it’s a delicate portrait of a boy’s inner world — his core of innocence — besieged by the seething world around him.
The disappointment is in the extended and chaotic climax and hasty resolution. Disparate events jockey for narrative prominence. A man is burned alive in the street, “writhing and screaming,” then a page later an auntie is asking, “Shall I make some dosais for breakfast?”
Hari’s charming wank session in the washroom is closely followed by his implication in the horrendous crushing of three men beneath a train engine. Life does take these abrasive turns, but Mahadevan doesn’t alter his structure or the gentle pitch of his storytelling to accommodate the suddenly chafing parts. Hari, a delightfully realized character, finally becomes lost in his author’s narrative maze.
- Jim Bartley
Sitting at the TSAR Publications book launch, I was transported into the carriage of a train, swaying to the clanking of the engine, my nostrils invaded by the spiced sweat of passengers. Anand Mahadevan was reading from his debut novel, The Strike. I had to read it.
The Strike follows the journey of Hari, a young boy discovering the intricacies of the world he inhabits. Set in southern India circa 1980, The Strike explores Tamil politics and religious and social hierarchies through the boyhood dilemmas of a growing (and somewhat confused) Hari. Mahadevan’s strength lies in his character description, rich and tinted with a hint of irony. His account of Radha, the eunuch, is a prime example,
“Here was a man more feminine than masculine, more dark than fair, more comely than muscular, and despite all this, he found her rather pretty.”
Some characters are stronger than the others, like the eunuch and Vishu, the servant’s son. Mahadevan has a clear insight on family dynamics, depicting a neurotic mother and an awkward pre-teen boy with intense accuracy. Another powerful character sketch is Mukund, the Bollywood star wannabe,
“His jet black hair was glossy and wavy. He had a pleasant cleanshaven face, with rugged features sharper than the soft boyish faces of the pretty Bollywood stars.”
The novel is divided into titled sections, from Acai (desire) to Paruttal (ripening), each symbolizing the loose theme or central situation of a collection of chapters. The narrative is playful and lighthearted, but scratch beneath the surface, and there is gravity that cannot be ignored. Mahadevan keeps this gravity at a safe distance, reminding the reader that the narrative is through the mind of a child.
Mahadevan’s language often enters the realm of the poetic, allowing the reader to taste the slick oil of sizzling puris and the salted rust of trains,
“As Hari lifted a piece of puri to his mouth, he could smell the train— its peculiar combination of rust, iron, and dirt that made his hands smell like blood and taste like salt.”
One disappointment with The Strike is that it ends too soon. The book could have continued for another 100 pages, and Mahadevan has the talent and the right words to make it even more enjoyable. When it ended, I felt like I had eaten a spoonful of chillies and was left without a glass of water. Perhaps his next novel will quench my thirst.
— Sheniz Janmohamed
The Strike was chosen by India Currents as one of the best books of 2007
“Of the many books I’ve been privileged to review for India Currents in 2007, the one that impressed me the most was The Strike by Anand Mahadevan. Written as a drama of errors that segues into a coming-of-age tale, The Strike is carried off with a sensitivity and empathy not often found in debut novels. Too often adults fail to recall what it was like to be a pre-teen in a decidedly adult world. While 12-year-old Hari’s world 20 years ago has unique history attached to it, the basic confusions and miscommunications of the age remain common to all children. The series of unfortunate events that challenges the charming and curious protagonist carefully and realistically tells a mature story that does not allow the reader to be a remote observer; adolescence and its all-too-familiar growing pains revive memories we may have forgotten and fill our hearts with knowing anticipation.”
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For 12-year-old Hari, life in 1987 Nagpur, Central India, is a relatively happy one. He lives a carefree existence with his closest friends, and holidays are spent happily taking the train—Hari’s passion—to visit family near Madras. Life would continue to be so effortless except that the typical mysteries and confusions of adolescence in a turbulent adult world creep into Hari’s life. It is not until a complex matter of national concern occurs that Hari’s childhood is quickly snatched away from him in Anand Mahadevan’s impressive debut novel, The Strike.
Hari is a nice Brahmin boy who is both curious and helpful. Unfortunately, the combination of these qualities with the awkwardness and ignorance of adolescence creates some noteworthy circumstances that propel Hari into the spotlight within and without his family. His desire to learn what fish tastes like strangely leads to his grandmother’s accidental death. His innocent use of Hindi rather than Tamil when visiting his Madras relatives leads to insults against the family. His desire to explore during a train trip oddly results in the theft of his mother’s wedding necklace. In short, Hari seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing or saying the wrong thing, yet it is never with malicious intent.
The most extraordinary event involving Hari occurs on Christmas Eve while traveling from Nagpur to Madras. His train, stopped by political protesters who lie across the tracks, becomes the centerpiece of a strike to mourn the death of their chief minister and film hero, MGR. Oblivious to the implications of the strike, Hari lives his dream and is allowed to visit the cab of the engine. The dream, though, is shattered too soon. When the protesters try to overtake the engine and the driver fights to keep them out, Hari’s attempts to be helpful produce devastating, tragic results.
With The Strike, Mahadevan has cleverly written a book about an adolescent without targeting younger readers. Clearly, while this is a piece of fiction that rings true in the portrayal of its main character, it is written for a more mature audience that should recall the emotions, uncertainties, and turmoil of that stage of life.
Less sensational episodes than those previously mentioned happen to Hari along the way, and each is handled with tenderness and care. From innocent questions met with inadequate responses to learning about the unrefined side of life from a film hero wannabe and a hijra on the train to dealing with changes within one’s own body, the author has rendered Hari’s story with kindness and compassion. He has shaped a tale that is layered with four generations of family love and sprinkled with the uncomfortable-yet-exhilarating feelings of sexual discovery. In The Strike, the complicated business of maneuvering through the adult world of explosive politics, misunderstood cultural variances, and ambiguous messages is Hari’s principal task, and that task is beautifully written and presented. Hari’s world of 1987 may not parallel a pre-teen’s world of today, but his growing pains are universal and unfolded in such a way that the reader cannot judge Hari alone. We all have shared those pains in one way or another.
— Jeanne E. Fredriksen
A refreshingly different novel
by Meenakshi Mukherjee
Like many first novels, this too is a growing up story, seemingly autobiographical, and like many NRI first novels the references to grandparents and great-aunts get so complicated that for ready reference, a family tree has to be provided. Add to that a background of public events to situate the personal narrative in contemporary Indian history, and you have the rough structure of The Strike.
Having said that, I have to add that despite this familiar formula, Anand Mahadevan’s novel is refreshingly different in several ways. First of all it is a railway novel — beginning and ending with a boy’s fascination with trains and engines, which in the latter half of the novel gives the plot a totally unexpected jolt.
Although trains have been a major part of Indian life, I do not remember reading a novel that uses it as a unifying motif. Secondly, Hari, who is seven years old at the beginning of the novel and 12 when it ends, lives in a railway colony in Nagpur where children of Bengali, Gujarati, and Tamil families grow up together, but during summer vacations they go to their grandparents and get exposed to regional cultures. This plural upbringing is very much part of a section of middle-class India but not many writers attempt to convey this interweaving.
Mahadevan manages to capture the cross-currents of languages and life-styles — though not without occasional self-consciousness. Hari’s succumbing to the temptation of tasting fish-fry in a Mukherjee household could have been a comic episode if it did not swell into a major crisis in his Iyer family. The accidental death of his grandmother on the same day turns his fish-eating into a traumatic experience. Hari is fluent in Hindi, but because he is heard speaking this alien language, anti-Hindi graffiti appear on the walls of his grandfather’s house in Chennai. Hari who does not know the legends of Tamil culture is introduced to the story of Kannagi and her anklet by a fellow passenger on a long train journey.
This train companionship—lasting longer than usual because at some point the wide-spread strike following MGR’s death stalls the train indefinitely—is described interminably for some 100 pages—giving the writer a chance to dwell leisurely on passengers from Punjab to Kerala and the relationships they forge during the journey. Presumably this slow build-up is intended to make the sudden climax of the journey more disturbing.
I will refrain from commenting on the climax or the uneasy ethical implications of the way the problem is resolved because it will be unfair to reveal the end. It might spoil the novel for those who have not read it yet.
Although most of the events are narrated from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, the novel does not miss out on the routine dose of the adi rasa—ranging from pre-pubescent stirrings of sexuality, a hesitant awareness of the boy’s homo-erotic desire to a sex-act inside a train toilet as reported by a hijira. Hari makes friends with this hijira called Radha whose character—raunchy and gregarious—is elaborately developed with explanatory details.
One wonders if this has anything to do with the fact that before the Penguin reprint, the book was first published in Canada by TSAR Publications which provide space for multi-cultural themes.
Many young writers who write their first novels quietly, away from public gaze, during stolen moments between an office job and running a household, will be envious of this author’s good luck in getting funding from two sources to complete this book—Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council.
The writer has also benefited from two creative writing courses in the University of Toronto and Humber College. His mentor in one of the courses—MG Vassanji—endorses the book on the cover describing it as “a wonderfully accomplished debut.”
Anand Mahadevan evidently has the talent for telling a story and making it vivid with observed details. Hopefully in his second novel he will go beyond the ‘craft’ learnt in the writing courses to chart out in an untrodden path.
Pick it up
by Girija Duggal
Twelve-year-old Hari is growing up in 1980s India in a society where political, religious and cultural barriers run deep. He tries to employ reasoning and logic to navigate this world, even as he comes to terms with the first stirrings of sexual awakening. A political strike that traps the youngster and his mother in a train becomes a watershed moment in the pre-adolescent’s life. In turns intense, humorous, poignant and erotic, The Strike makes for a compelling read.