A review of Van de Graaff Days by Ven Begamudré

Lantzville, B.C.: Oolichan Books, 1993.

I didn’t choose this book so that it could sit on my bookshelf. You could say that the book chose me. One of my cousin’s neighbours – the Badami family (Canadian Indian author Anita Rau Badami is one of them)- were giving away their books as they couldn’t take their vast collection to New Zealand. They thought and I agree whole-heartedly that selling books will only belittle them. So they preferred to give away books to people who will take care of them. I picked up 8 or 9 books from their collection. This is one of them.

My first impression was that this was one of those books that Indians settled abroad write. But thankfully it is NOT (I repeat NOT) about lost identity or roots. It is quite unique because it deals with the relationship between father and son only coincidentally spanning three continents and three cities – Mauritius, Bangalore, and Ottawa.

G. Krishna Rao is the stern, intelligent, former Gandhian who leaves a lucratic professorial job at Benaras Hindu University to pursue higher studies in America. His equally brilliant wife Rukmini charts her own academic career in a different town. The only difference is that she finishes her Ph.d, he doesn’t. The gap that grows between them is both geographical and emotional. Caught in this emotional/geographical no-man’s land is Harishchandra, their talented intelligent son. Till the age of five, he lives with his grandmother in Mauritius. Then, Rukmini takes him back to Bangalore, where she researches at the Indian Institute of Science. The time is the 1950s and this is an unusual arrangement for a family by any standard.

Krishna leaves America for Canada and calls Rukimi and Harishchandra to join him. After much delay, they do. Unfortunately Rukmini is not the homemaker kind. When she takes up a job in Vancouver, she leaves the toddler with his rather gruff athlethic father who tries to establish some sort of connection with the child. From this point on, the novel loses focus. Is the focus of the novel the son’s growth or the father-son relationship? It’s not clear till the end. But the sections where Harishchandra’s school life in Canada is described are truly engaging.

The relationship between the title and the novel is also not clear. Van de Graaf is this device that Krishna uses in his research. He is quite obsessed with it. However, it is limited to just that. If the Van de Graaf would somehow transcend that function and become a metaphor then I would have had a richer novel on my hands. Alternatively since Ganesha is running motif, he should have considered mentioning it in the title.

The narrative in the first 1/3rd of the novel is from Krishna’s point of view. The other 2/3rds are Harishchandras’s point of view. Using multiple points of view while tempting needs to be skilfully handled. In my opinion, a 3rd person omniscient narrator would have given the novel balance.

On the bright side, when creating atmosphere, like Madras of the 1940s or describing the fragility of human relationships, Begamudré shines through. One of the most memorable images that he has come up with is that of snow angels. Harishchandra is shown by his friend Althea how to make snow angels: lie with your back on the snow and swing your arms up and down and legs from left to right. Get up with someone’s help to not disturb the angels. It’s beautiful and eerie to see Harishchandra see his own work of art – a parking lot full of snow angels.

The language in this book is kept simple. This is a serious story about a serious son and serious father and should not be disturbed by linguistic gimmicks.

It is in no secret that the author uses his own experiences in the book. History, mythology, engineering and music have been used liberally because his parents and by extension her loves it so. There’s nothing wrong in dipping into one’s life when writing one’s first novel but the impression I get is that it has not risen above that.

Written in 1993, Van de Graaff Days does not belong to that genre of expatriate writing where exotica is paraded for exotica’s sake and the eternal search for roots makes the protagonist/s question everything around them. Harishchandra and Krishna embrace Western culture without fuss. No one notices when rice disappears and waffles take their place at the breakfast table. One lesson to take home from this book would be life is so much more than a clash of cultures.

Rating: * * = Timepass(Okay)

My Rating System:
* * * * * = Khallas (Deadly)
* * * * = Bindaas (Great)
* * * = Jhakaas (Good)
* * = Timepass(Okay)
* = Bakwaas (Avoid it)

3 thoughts on “A review of Van de Graaff Days by Ven Begamudré

  1. Can u elaborate on the Van de Graf?
    (I dunno anything exceot that he is a UK scientist)
    and yup, books always choose u
    and finally Ottawa is a beautiful place!


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