Divided House
Rajdeep Bains

Four Steps From Paradise
by Timeri N. Murari. Penguin. Pages 654. Rs 325.

Four Steps From ParadisePICTURES in words", is what comes to mind on reading Four Steps from Paradise. A refreshing change from most novels today that appear to cater to readers with short attention spans, here is finally someone who dares to explore the world of writing in all its glorious possibilities and shuns the quick and dramatic in favour of the creative and leisurely.

A story about the break-up of the Great House of the Naidus, it is set in a gentler, more laid-back era. Young Krishna and his family live in a "sprawling mansion on a vast estate hidden in the heart of Madras" with a motley group of doting siblings, cousins, uncles and aunties who also "squabble amiably" every now and then. But as in every story about paradise, the serpent lurks just beneath the idyllic existence.

The boy’s father decides to bring Victoria Greene, an Englishwoman, into the conservative Naidu household, first as a governess and then as a stepmother to the children. Three of the siblings learn to accept the change, though reluctantly at first, but the eldest sister, Anjali, rebels. The joint family is headed by Ranjit Naidu, a strong-willed patriarch, whose business speculations go terribly wrong, paving the way for the break-up. When he dies, Krishna’s father and stepmother move away, taking the younger three children with them.

The slow decay of the joint family that’s now broken apart, with various strands going their separate ways, is described with a gentleness that is strangely moving. The narrator, Krishna, takes in the love and hate, the joys and the tragedies with the unhurried perusal of a sensitive observer, taking us into his world when he’s only eight and keeping us there right up to his 50s.

One cannot miss the obvious metaphor thrown up by an Englishwoman walking into the fortress of an Indian family, with the help of one of its members, and then breaking it up, especially as the novel is set just three years after India’s Independence. Here as with India, it is the existing cracks in the structure that succumb to the outside threat. There are already dissensions and intrigues waiting to surface. Victoria Greene is merely the strong catalyst that facilitates the breach. "Such was our fragility," says Krishna, "that a European woman had snapped her fingers and the whole edifice had crumbled."

It is a story of betrayal. From beginning to end, the theme of paradise lost is handled movingly. Then, there are stories within the story. The history of the land unfolds as we observe the family history. Since both Ranjit Naidu and the children’s father are influential figures, we see Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam, Nehru and M. S. Subbulakshmi, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran, all as a part of Murari’s vast and glittering canvas.

The only jarring detail is when every once in a while, we find the writer going out of his way to educate the non-Indian reader. It is still acceptable where it forms a part of the narrative, as in the passages explaining wedding rites, but when characters themselves supply these details, as in the conversation of Krishna’s co-passengers in the train or the cinema history provided by the actress, it distracts.

Murari’s characters are unforgettable. They all live and grow before our eyes. They are richly drawn tragic characters, capable of immortality. Under the magic strokes of his brush, the house itself becomes a character, its majesty steadily eroded by human interference until the final scene where only the debris of Paradise remains.