The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 8, 2002

Engaging tale of biases and racialism
Review by Bhavana Pankaj
Paddy Indian
by Cauvery Madhavan, Penguin Books, Pages 237, Rs 250, it’s a nice book. Not something that you’d feel incomplete without if you didn’t read it. It’s funny, yes. Not the way Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans was. You don’t exactly hold your sides and laugh till you cry. It makes you chuckle alright, but only in the mind...

Less than half way down Cauvery Madhavan’s Paddy Indian, and I have decided like the almighty, been-there, done-that reviewer what this 237-page book is all about. It certainly is not about some rich country bumpkin from the boondocks of India who goes West, his English all wrong and eyes all wide at all things ‘phoren’. Dr Padhman is a very wealthy, very western young Indian and heir to an illustrious medical lineage who arrives in Ireland to get "lots of letters after his name". Unlike Mathur’s guy from Jajau who is innocent and idiotic all at once, the young doctor is neither. He hates "being the fool foreigner, the laughing stock of the place".

For all the reputation that he has to live up to in India, Paddy Indian is no Mr Goody-Two-Shoes. He swears, soon enough in Irish. He fantasises about young nubile things back home, particularly the "dingo-dame" Annie before he falls hopelessly in love with Aiofe, his Irish Professor’s daughter. He is intelligent, witty and given to a lot of internal dialogue.


Most of the insight into Paddy Indian’s mind comes from his thoughts — about his intrepid, doting Amma and her unyielding morality who can "never understand the difference between normal and decent". About his Appa who he cheekily thinks deserves a title like Grandfather’s – "Prof Sriram Anant FCF (OC). Family Comes First. Of course."

About his ‘friend since conception’ Sunil and his wife Renu — both of whom also happen to be his schoolmates and co-residents in Dublin. About Annie and Aiofe. About the latter’s family, specially her mother Millie Gorman who he deftly describes as "Amma’s psychological double". About Manoharan — his hospital co-worker with his very migrant, very chauvinistic mindset, who thinks women like Annie are easy game.
And about himself — torn between his half-real paranoia of White people and bridging the chasm between the East and the West and indeed, between two generations from different milieus. His conflict about who — Aiofe or he — will give up everything to be with the other is characteristic of all those young people from so-called modern-Indian families. They like to be seen as cosmopolitan till cosmopolitan problems begin to grow in their backyard. He knows it would be darned difficult for Aiofe to settle down in India for even as Indians "fawn over White foreigners, they might privately wonder if she has converted from using toilet paper to using water and soap". But then he doesn’t want to be "that foreigner forever" sipping Bailey’s and wanting to smoke beedis!

But Madhavan’s story isn’t just about migrant angst. She has the knack for spotting the follies and foibles of people that makes them real. Venkat who says his wife is all frigid instead of saying she’s frozen in the cold or Mrs Tiwari with her "Total peoples is twenty-eight. Ladies and gents included" are real. There is funniness in the way she writes about the "stereophonic burping" that Sunil and Paddy share and the sly names, like Randy Renu, they remember giving to each other in school. She is unsparing as she gets Renu to be at her sardonic best in telling Aiofe, "See these westernised Hindu liberals? Come exams or the next job interview, they’ll be asking their mothers for the ghee lamps to be lit and special prayers to be performed. You see, they access their religion on a need-to-know basis."

Cauvery Madhavan also surprises. Just when you are settling in with what you think is a rather sedate story, she yanks you out to face you with a new turn of events minus much ado. But the most delicious thing about her story is the ‘other’ hero — food! Food becomes her emotional processor — to grind, chop, mince, mix and blend! But it performs more than an allegorical function. All those deliciously long descriptions about hot steaming idlis, crisp vadais, appams and egg curry, small potatoes in strips of streaky bacon, match-sticked carrots doused in butter, all that grinding, squeezing, extracting, cutting, slicing, soaking, marinating, slow and deep-frying leaves even a non-foodie like me salivating and hungering for more. And I have a sneaking suspicion that she might be penning a book on cross-cultural gourmand delights!

Okay, so I am eating — my words. At least, some of them. Madhavan engages with issues of prejudices, biases and racialism — be they Indian or Irish. In fact, they are as much cross-cultural as is the pain of being a migrant. "Distance can warp your judgement, smother your emotions with logic and make you temporarily so detached," thought Padhman, becoming conscious of Appas’s hands holding him gently. "Whatever made me think I wouldn’t miss Grandfather." he says.

She also makes you smile. And once in a while, you also cry till you smile again.