One of the inherent pitfalls of reading a book of fiction authored by a non-resident Indian (NRI) writer is that very often such books either end up glorifying everything about our country, thereby making you think that the author wore rose-tinted glasses while writing it, or go to the other extreme of aggressively pitching for change, acting like the proverbial social justice warrior.
In this light, debutante author Sriram Balasubramanian’s novel Jamba: The Joint Family does well to avoid the pitfalls on either side. Narrated in the first person by Karthik, a wannabe writer and journalism student based out of Chennai, the novel maps the few stressful days that come right before a typical big, fat Indian wedding.
Karthik’s long-suffering but resilient cousin Lalitha is the bride. Her parents are stressed, as their differently-abled daughter is finally getting married, and nothing must go wrong. But if nothing goes wrong, what kind of wedding will that be? Karthik takes it upon himself to play the troubleshooter for his sister’s wedding, and if that means having to put up with his NRI cousins Neha and Nikhil, then so be it.
But things become complicated, as Neha’s parents wish to make this trip to India a doubleheader by getting her engaged to the groom’s brother. Neha is obstinate and puts her foot down against her parents. Karthik, his goofy drummer-cousin Anirudh, his best buddy Shas (who is nursing a broken heart himself) and Nikhil have to walk a tightrope, making sure Neha does not have to enter into an engagement she does not approve of while ensuring Lalitha’s wedding goes through without a hitch.
The last couple of days before the wedding turn out to be especially hectic for the boys, as they chase recalcitrant runaway cousins through Chennai’s mean streets, try to collect money for relatives who risk destitution and keep their dhotis on (go figure!).
The book reads like a light-hearted, breezy rom-com with a touch of South Indian family melodrama. Sriram keeps the action moving at a fairly brisk pace to tie up all the loose ends together in 200-odd pages. To his credit, he narrates the struggles of young NRIs as they try to reconcile their modern, liberal values with their traditional upbringing. He also refuses to be judgemental and allows readers to form their own teams to root for.
On the flip side, the writer would have done well to have read more from writers like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard (even though they belong to a different genre) to study the craft of writing short, punchy dialogues. With his light and breezy writing style, he should be a natural at writing good dialogues with more effort.
Overall, Jamba: The Joint Family is a recommended read for anyone interested in the emotional conflicts that arise from a clash of cultures in communities with a large population of NRIs, like the TamBrahms. This is certainly an encouraging debut.
The writer is a investment services professional and novelist. His latest novel The Dark Road was published by Juggernaut Publications.
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