Fly with it

Shastri Ramachandaran

The Red Carpet
by Lavanya Sankaran Review, Headline
Pages 215. Rs 295

The Red CarpetAfter the global IT meltdown and before the markets began reviving some two years ago, B2B, meaning "Back to Bangalore", became the survival strategy for global tech majors as well as techies. As a global IT hub, Bangalore attracted not only investments, and individuals who had made tracks to greener pastures in the West, but also a lot of interest and curiosity – about the city, its culture and inhabitants, its way of life and society in general. In recent decades, an Indian abroad had to ‘locate’ himself with reference to Bombay and, later, Mumbai and Delhi. In the last few years, without doubt, Bangalore has come to be more widely known though only a small proportion of those who know of the city are in any way acquainted with our very own Silicon Valley and the mores of its denizens.

Along comes Lavanya Sankaran, who worked as an investment banker in New York. With her business sense, she knows that there is an audience, especially in the US, waiting for exactly the kind of stories she has woven. IT is truly a crossover industry, cutting across geographical distances, cultural differences and economic disparities. Now someone has to feed this growing curiosity about this silicon-driven world of the uprooted as well as the implanted; and who better than this Tamil Brahmin from Bangalore with an observant eye, conversant with both the cultures and able to write with remarkable ease. So, the savvy woman finds a smart agent, who triggers a bidding war among nine publishers over a three-day auction, which ends with Sankaran clinching a six-figure dollar deal. Except, that is not the climax.

The climax is The Red Carpet, a collection of eight stories set in Bangalore. The title piece, first published in The Atlantic Monthly a year ago, is by far the best of the lot. In this story of Rangappa, renamed Raju by a slip of a girl who employs him as a driver, is unsure if his "decency" is sullied by the ways of his boss. She smokes, drinks, wears short skirts, shows cleavage and is too young and carefree to command his awe as an employer, though she is kind and considerate towards him and his needs. His most tormenting moments come when she decides to visit his family and his daughter’s school. He dreads the prospect of her making the trip in a "revealing" dress but is reassured that his "respectability" will endure when she appears in a salwar-kameez.

This stress on cultural differences and their manifestations and the tensions they give rise to even while underscoring what unites and enables cohabitation of people across the divide, is common to all the stories. The prose is superb: it is not racy but absorbing; elegant with an economy that never skips the detail; discerning and descriptive without being overtly judgmental; mischievous, mocking, even wicked but never malicious or derisive.

How the traditional and orthodox — people as well as practices — co-exist with the modern and the fashionable despite the indissoluble tensions is delineated with an affectionate tolerance of both the old and the new social and cultural worlds spawned by the global invasion of the local. Her use of desi (Kannada and Tamil words and phrases) without any effort at deliberated desification adds flavour and delight. Sankaran makes no conscious effort to be politically correct; nor does she drift into the "vocabulary of victimhood", to use her own phrase, as is so common in so many of the works of talented women. Perhaps, that is why the subtle articulation of the gender issue in "Mysore Coffee" makes this story less appealing.

As a collection, and a first one at that, the Carpet is a welcoming red and certainly good for more than a trans-Atlantic flight. Worth keeping on your shelf.