The House of Blue Mangoes

by David Davidar
416 pages,
ISBN: 0006392199

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Among the Mangoes
by Maureen Lennon

"Óit would be well for England, better for India and best of all for the cause of progressive civilization if it be clearly understood that Ówe have not the smallest intention of abandoning our Indian possessions and that it is highly improbable that any such intention will be entertained by our posterity."
This sentiment was expressed by George Nathaniel Curzon, British Viceroy of India, 1898-1905, to British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. At the start of Curzon's term in India, Mahatma Gandhi was twenty-nine years old. He had not yet broken the British Salt Law, nor rallied the Indian people against their British rulers through calls for non-cooperation. Nine more Viceroys followed in Curzon's footsteps, ending with Mountbatten in 1947, the year India gained independence from Britain. And it is against this backdrop of the final fifty years of the British rule in India that author David Davidar has set his first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes.
The title of the novel refers to the seat of power of the Dorai family that stands among massive groves in the south of India along Cape Comorin, where the almost magical fruit, the rare sweet blue mango grows. The story unfolds over three generations as the family, Indian, educated and affluent, struggles to find its place in the changing political and moral landscape of the country.
Davidar has chosen to paint a very broad canvas in his first novel, and, unfortunately, he is not always in control of all his material. What he does best is create an abiding character out of a time period, in much the same way that Alice Munro raises locale to the level of a major character in her writing. He illustrates the stunningly complicated intricacies of the caste system that has characterized India for centuries, the seeming hopelessness of a nation attempting to mature into the twentieth century while shackled to thousands of petty rules and observances and generational anger, and then the miraculous marshalling of this same fractured group of people to effect the slow, humiliating, stubborn defeat of an oppressor. But, against this setting, he doesn't seem to have much of an original story.
Throughout the book, Davidar touches upon familiar themes: family discord, the generation gap, the Christian parable of the prodigal son, reaffirmation of the axiom that blood is thicker than water, the comedy that underlies all arrogance. The patriarch of the Dorai family, Solomon, loses his life to caste strife and the spotlight shifts to his son Daniel. His other son, Aaron, has rebelled and disappeared into the throng and political upheaval, looking to find his place in the world. Daniel, a compassionate man who is a practitioner of both eastern and western medicine, becomes fabulously wealthy after inventing Moonwhite Thylam, a cream that promises to lighten Indian complexions. This is just one of several potent examples of contrast that Davidar uses extremely well to make the point that the world is far less divisible into black and white images than we the readers, or the ruling British, or the subjugated Indians believe.
The desire to lighten the skin to gain acceptance by the British world is the catalyst for the making of a fortune that eventually allows Daniel to return home and establish an all-Indian family commune, Doraipuram, in the heart of the mango groves. A magnificent mansion and gardens, built by a British architect, anchor the compound. Later, when Daniel's son Kannan turns his back on his Indian heritage to rise up through the ranks of British society on a tea plantation, the spectacle of the British wives imposing their version of civilization on the plantation community¨their attempt to help secure the empire¨ultimately fuels the insurgence that drives the British out and sends Kannan running for home and heritage. We meet other characters: A Scottish priest who is less convinced of the necessity of imposing Christianity the longer he stays in India, British officials nearing the end of their careers who long to remain in the magnificent natural landscape of India rather than return home to the England that will relegate them to small village obscurity, and a scheming, dishonest, opportunistic Indian lawyer who inflicts pain and suffering within his own community.
The success of these contrasts notwithstanding, Davidar's narration is inconsistent, ranging from lyrical when describing the countryside surrounding the mango groves, to dry didacticism when attempting to move the story forward. His character development suffers from too little attention, resulting in interactions between characters that don't always seem believable because the author has not thoroughly fleshed out a personality. The journey through this fifty years is overly long and the ending is weak, predictable and stale. It has all been said before. ˛

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