Picador, India 2023
Human and Very Real
Dr Rachna Singh reviews Western Lane by Chetna Maroo
What happens when a husband loses a wife? When young girls lose a dearly loved mother? A sense of loss, denial and a grief so deep that it cannot find an outlet in tears. Chetna Maroo’s book ‘Western Lane’ is a simple, touching tale of how a Gujrati family, settled in Britain, grapples with grief in their own individual ways.
The husband tries to divert the pain of his loss and his sense of loneliness by beginning on a squash training regime for the girls, perhaps hoping that the discipline and regimentation may help him forget his tragedy. Although it helps initially, the novelty wears off and he soon loses interest, and simply stands outside the court smoking a cigarette or talking to Ged’s mother. ‘The girls are eating me up’, he confides in Ged’s mother one day. He starts skipping his appointments as an electrician, the busted radiator in their house remains untended and slowly even the food at home becomes scarce. He pours out his misery to his friend Bala in letters he spends hours writing. He begins to behave as though his wife is alive and present. Mona, Khush and Gopi can hear him talking to his wife in the stillness of a dark, cold night.
Left to their own devices, what do the girls do? Mona, just fifteen, takes over the running of the house, trying to paper over the financial and emotional cracks in their lives. She even starts working in a salon and does book-keeping and accounts for various shops, bringing in much needed money. Khush, who is thirteen, can be heard on the landing, in the still of the night, trying to connect with her mother’s spirit. But slowly she realizes the futility of it all and falls back into the comforting routine of school, homework, and squash. Gopi, the youngest at eleven, pours all her energy into her squash training. For her ‘the steady, melancholy rhythm from the other court, the shot and its echo, over and over again’, is like some sort of deliverance. ‘It is with a feeling of having been rescued that I raised my racquet and served,’ she says at one point. So, squash and its gruelling regime makes her transcend her sense of grief and inadequacy. It gives her a sense of control, it makes her a part of the pantheon of other squash players like Jehangir Khan as well as her squash partner, young Ged. She is no longer alone in the world. There are others like her around. This gives her a sense that someone has her back.
Western lane is a simple story of grief and loss, written in a conversational but visually stunning style, that brings alive the world of Gopi, for the readers. A book that describes the despondent silence that fetters and binds a household plunged in anguish at the loss of a wife and mother. A book that makes the reader empathize with the loss and pain and fill-in the silent gaps and unsaid conversations. A book that makes the reader sympathize rather than denounce Gopi when she smashes the ball into her father’s face, makes the reader cheer Gopi on as she plays the Durham & Clevland tournament and makes the reader applaud Mona when she works to buy Gopi a new racquet in an act of sisterly unity. A book that is not clever or academic or ironic or stunningly brilliant in its theme and style but simply human and very real. No wonder then that this debut novel by Chetna Maroo was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023.
About the Author
Chetna Maroo was born in Kenya and lives in London. Her stories have appeared in anthologies and have been published in the Paris Review, the Stinging Fly and the Dublin Review. She was the recipient of the 2022 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, awarded annually since 1993 by the Paris Review to celebrate an outstanding piece of fiction by an emerging writer published in themagazine during the preceding year. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as an accountant. Western Lane, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, is her first novel.
A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than two decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano. Her forthcoming title, Phoenix in Flames, is a collection of stories about women who have fought their demons and tragedies and arisen from the flames of their suffering like the mythical phoenix.