Ancestral Affairs: Poet Daruwalla’s latest novel is a runaway romp

When I begin reading Ancestral Affairs, my only reference point is Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters — a Parsi family saga that had left me with much heartache.

Keki N. Daruwalla’s second novel, with its sepia-tinted cover photograph of a Parsi family gravely contemplating the world, seems to set off similar vibrations. My relationship with verse being tenuous at best, what I’m anticipating from the author, one of India’s most celebrated poets, are introspective moments, incisive observations and, of course, dazzling word play. Not humour.

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Article by Mita Ghose | The Hindu

And then Daruwalla springs it upon me. Quietly ironic, savage, indecorous or even outrageously silly, his use of humour zaps the alternating first-person accounts of the novel’s two main protagonists, Saam Bharucha and his son, Rohinton, with high-voltage intensity and adds sparkle to the finely drawn cameos he serves up. The author, however, is clearly driven by more serious objectives as he reaches beyond the personal to embrace the universal, expanding the novel’s scope and enriching it with extensive research and nuggets of inside information.

Ancestral Affairs opens on a sombre note. The year is 1947, the place, Junagadh, a Muslim state whose nawab must decide on the matter of its accession to either India or Pakistan. While the royal ruler’s loyalties lie with the latter, Saam, an attorney from Bombay, is appointed his legal advisor to help tilt his opinion in India’s favour. In due course, the Parsi lawyer comes across a motley bunch of individuals, including real-life personalities like Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto (father of Zulfikar, the executed Prime Minister of Pakistan). He also befriends Claire, a British trader’s wife.

Brooding over the morality of “serving one master” when his “heart is elsewhere”, Saam finds himself increasingly sidelined. He drifts into an affair with the recently widowed Claire, but feels honour-bound to confess his infidelity, thereby ending what had remained of his marriage and causing a rift with his son.

Meanwhile, the nawab flees to Pakistan, baggage and begums in tow. With Saam’s relevance to Junagadh over and his son waiting in the wings, the focus shifts from the political to the personal and the “family” in the saga comes to the fore.

All through, Daruwalla’s irrepressible wit keeps surfacing in Saam’s irreverent observations on the world around him. But it is when Rohinton takes over as the first-person narrator that the story comes dramatically alive.

Following his trail from boarding school to medical school, small town to teeming city, one misdemeanour to the next, is an adrenaline rush, because Bharucha Junior comes across as the original daredevil who is no fool, but seems hell-bent on rushing in where angels fear to tread. A friend’s accidental death, expulsion from medical school, dismissal from his journalist’s job, involvement in a defamation case and his beloved Feroza’s initial rejection of him leave him feeling “fucked, fired and finished”, but serve as necessary brakes in his reckless existence.

While our heart goes out to him, the inevitable growing-up process these setbacks contribute to is no cause for jubilation, because we seem to want this apparently untameable subversive we’ve been rooting for to remain unchanged. In all his moods, defiant, sombre or playful, Rohinton is so real that Daruwalla’s claim about his character not being “based on anyone I know” is hard to accept.

Following this rebel’s trajectory is, in fact, so addictive that whenever his father takes over as narrator, there’s an “Oh, no!” feeling. As if anticipating this response, the author spices up Saam’s account with family scandals, outrageous developments — the Castanet Kitty case — and eccentric characters, including the Bharuchas’ kith and kin, like Kavarana Kaka, with his unusual take on China’s opium wars: “Englis cannon make Chinese ports, boats, defences into kheema, mince… Their navy turn to sweet and sour pork…”

We wonder, though, if it’s too much of a good thing. Even as we’re chuckling over Kaka’s outpourings or grand-massi Mamai’s wisecrack about the Towers of Silence, there’s this niggling feeling of being on a runaway train that’s jumped the track.

Daruwalla does help us get back on course, but the way he manoeuvres a sense of closure towards the denouement, blithely awarding happy endings to Saam and Rohinton’s respective love stories by bumping off the inconvenient human obstacles, sits oddly with the realism he’s so clearly striving for.

Ultimately, however, it isn’t the novel’s structure, its carefully crafted period flavour (barring the occasional discordant note: platform heels and the use of the expression “spot on” in the 1940s?), the peek it offers into the backrooms of political power or the sexual romps it describes that are likely to remain with us.

It is Rohinton and Rohinton alone who will go into our memory albums, give or take a Kavarana Kaka.

Freelance editing provides Mita Ghose her bread, butter, and food for thought; travel, food for her soul.

Ancestral Affairs; Keki N. Daruwalla, Fourth Estate, Rs. 499.