There is something about the experience of reading a good book; that like a well-brewed cup of coffee, stays with you long after it is finished.
A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to read Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas, in exchange for an honest review on a popular reading and book review website.
I don’t know what I was expecting, when I began–but it certainly wasn’t to find myself in the middle of the night staring entranced at the laptop, feverishly swishing at virtual pages; blatantly ignoring the loud, throbbing sleep signals pulsing in my forehead.
The next morning my husband woke up a little alarmed at what must have been my demented, unblinking expression; and suggested, a little gently, that it might be healthy for me to stop reading after midnight.
But good books, often by definition, tend to command your attention; and though I spent the next 24 hours walking around like a catatonic zombie, it was worth it.
“That is the only reason I did not speak up sooner, because I knew you could offer more [You, of all people! An Oxford man!] — the West, a good education, but not this! If you had taken him to England, let him grow up there and be a doctor worthy of the name and with all the privileges he deserves I would not have interfered, but this…’
“Privileges! I remember a day when there was no talk of privileges but only of shame.” –Nataraj’s father, p 106-7
The story begins in an orphanage in 1947, Tamil Nadu, India—from the perspective of a little boy called Paul— on the day that he is adopted by a kind, gray-blue eyed man he refers to as “sahib” (a term which I have only known to mean “sir” in Hindi, but which at the time, was–and apparently still is in Tamil–a race distinction meaning “white”.)
Paul notes that instead of wearing trousers like other sahibs, his soon-to-be father was wearing a lungi like “any other man”, and instead of shaking hands, the way that sahibs and memsahibs do; upon greeting the nun, Mother Immaculata, at the orphanage, the man makes a pranam to her.
After a very grateful Paul is chosen, desperately clinging to his new father’s finger, the sahib props him up on his motorcycle and tells him that from now on, Paul will be called “Nataraj”.
Nataraj grows up in a remote little impoverished village in Tamil Nadu, serving as his father’s assistant. His father is the village doctor (called “daktah sahib” by locals), and is highly respected in the community—serving anyone and everyone who travels to see him.
“’Ma,’ Saroj began, tugging at the skirt of Ma’s sari.
Ma looked down and smiled. Her hands were white with flour up to the elbows.
‘Why’s negro bad?’
Ma’s brow creased but her smile remained. Her hands went on working as she
‘Don’t believe that, dear. Don’t ever believe that.’” — Saroj’s mother, p 23
The second chapter hops across a decade and a continent to 1956, in Georgetown, British Guiana to introduce a little girl named Saroj, accompanying her mother on a curious shopping trip in which they buy a Rajasthani sword.
Saroj pleasantly wonders who her gentle, soft-spoken mother is planning to kill with it, as the two of them walk through Stabroek market; the little girl bouncing about admiring the wonderful, bustling city of Georgetown, which could ‘reach out and fold you into soft wide arms and let you snuggle in.’
The sordid reality of a divided, racist Georgetown opens up to little Saroj not too long after however, when “Baba”, her father, discovers she has been playing with a black neighbor, whips her, and forces her to write “I must never play with negroes” on every line of her schoolbook.
Burning with anger, Saroj decides that one day she will get her revenge.
‘They’re looking for a husband for me,’ [six year old Savitri] said, ‘and that’s why I can’t play with you any more.’
‘But that’s so silly,’ said David. ‘Because I’m going to marry you myself !’ ” — Savitri and David, p 34
The final protagonist, Savitri, is introduced in the third chapter—as a little girl growing up in 1921, Madras, India– the daughter of a cook called “Iyer”, who works as a servant for a British family on their estate.
Savitri is a bit of a wild child. Much to the chagrin of her parents, unlike the other girls, she is always hiking up her skirt and petticoat to play cricket or climb trees. But her mother’s biggest concern is that she is in love with David, the master’s son.
David’s parents allow for the children’s friendship, seeing it as harmless, and Savitri innocently flutters and skips around the estates lining the streets Atkinson Avenue, and plays with David on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, knowing even then, in the back of her very young mind, that it is not meant to last.
Each chapter weaves the three stories of Nataraj, Saroj and Savitri together as they grow up– amidst the backdrop of racial tension, changing societies, and oppressive governments or families–across different parts of the globe; providing shades and touches to the other two story lines, until they come together in book’s resolution.
Rich, vivid and beautifully painted—the imagery sucks you in from the first few words. The author doesn’t just write about tropical Georgetown, or freezing London, or a flood in Tamil Nadu; she makes you feel as though the scenes are unfolding around you.
Reading this book is a sensory experience–characters pop alive vividly, warmly inviting you into their vibrant, colorful world. Sharon Maas has lived in all the places described in the book, and this is apparent in every line.
“Betty Auntie was really nice. She would offer them soursop juice and pine tarts and tamarind balls, guava-jelly sandwiches and ice cold Milo.” — Saroj, p 20
When I asked her how she was able to recreate all these places for us, and get the rhythm just right, she said “I think it is just that wherever I am, I tend to “absorb” a country’s spirit more than I take in the facts.
“I might by shaky, for instance, on India’s history, politics, statistics and so on, but I can actually feel India’s soul, its essence. So when I write about India – as an example – I tune into that memory of India’s essence, which is still somehow within me, and it let it flow into the writing. The other things, the facts, I can always check up on Google or by reading books. But it’s the spirit that interests me more, and that I would like to transmit to readers.”
It’s perhaps this spirit that is captured not just in the various parts of the globe where the author has lived or traveled, but also in the characters who are born to those cities (and those distinctive decades). Dripping with symbolism, the book comes alive as each character has to transform—managing, slowly, in his or her own way, to emerge out of the darker aspects of the humanity surrounding them and making the challenging choice to live in the liberating light.
Each character’s voice is unique, and presented authentically—even the less-sympathetic characters are depicted with honesty.
In each situation, the story presents both sides—for Nataraj, this means discovering a balance between the lure of first world England versus the rural, third world village from where he came. For Saroj, this means fighting her way through an oppressive Hindu family life, but slowly understanding the truth behind her religion. For Savitri, it is in the complex and endearing form of unconditionally loving the British, who ruled her people, and unconditionally loving her family, who rebelled against them.
The story never idealizes one side over the other, but rather paints the world as it appeared from both sides of the battle lines. Perplexed by what they felt were extraordinarily repressive customs, women with power–who in a less skilled author’s hand could easily be depicted as villains–in this story try earnestly (albeit condescendingly) to help those whom they view to be the repressed, voiceless girls of Indian families–forced to acquiesce their own destinies to the will of their family and broader society–the moment they grow to become ‘of marriageable age’.
The author has drawn on her own experiences to describe the struggle of women growing up in the last century.
“I grew up in the 20th century and I had a first-hand experience of the changes women as a whole went through. My mother was one of the first feminists in my country [Guyana] and raised me with feminist ideals; but I was critical of some of these ideals and as a young girl coming of age I was very eager to explore, to examine for myself, to see what works for women and what doesn’t, and what kind of woman I myself wanted to become.
“I have lived with women in traditional set-ups in India and Guyana, and with liberal, modern women in developed Western countries; I see failings on both sides, pain and heartache in all models, so in the end I think that each woman must find out for herself what it means to live in this day and age. There are more opportunities for us than ever before, but we have to be careful not lose the essence of what makes us women. Not just to become men with boobs, copying what men do and reproducing all the mistakes they made, but to be unique and whole and free. It’s not as easy as it seems!”
“Saroj chased the butterflies all through the back garden. ‘Don’t chase them,’ Ma said. ‘Just stand still, and if you’re lucky one might alight on your shoulder. See…’
Saroj stood stock still so the butterfly would land on her but it didn’t.
‘You want it too much,’ Ma said smiling. ‘You have to be still inside as well as outside.’” Saroj’s mother, p 14-15.
Nataraj, Saroj and Savitri’s stories are written in a time when countries all over the world were shedding their colonial-era cocoons—and illustrates how people had to transform themselves as individuals to begin the slow process of creating a better world.
At its heart, the novel’s philosophy emerges through the character of Savitri—who is able to turn her ego inwards and listen to the sense and hearts of all the sentient beings around her.
But Sharon Maas did not set out to promote any philosophy; rather, her ideals came through her characters, when they had to deal with the things life threw at them. In the end, her philosophy rang through in the novel: “I believe that the human species is at its core good, and that our life on earth is about learning to find that goodness and to live it. I believe that love is the highest good, and that to live is to learn to love – completely and unconditionally.”
After telling her that I connected with the book personally, I asked how she was able to create this dynamic between the story and her readers.
“My way is to absorb more through the heart, rather than through the brain. Perhaps this allows readers to connect in a more intimate way than through the intellect. Through the spaces between the words rather than through the words themselves.”
When asked what she would like readers to take from her story, she said “I would like them to just come along with me for the journey and afterwards, when they close the last page, say it was a wonderful, unforgettable one.”
Since my husband can attest for the “unforgettable” expression on my face while I guzzled down a pot full of coffee after a night of no sleep thanks to Of Marriageable Age, I can say that for my part, this hope was fulfilled.
Stabroek Market, Guyana: guyanatimes.international.com
Sharon Maas in India: Sharon Maas, personal photographs
Sharon Maas: authorscoop.com