Book Title: Western Lane
Author: Chetna Maroo
Chetna Maroo’s debut novel, ‘Western Lane’, is a tale of love, loss, sibling camaraderie and diasporic sentiments elegantly etched in and around the squash court. The narrator/protagonist is an 11-year-old girl, Gopi, based in London, quietly struggling to cope with a deep pain, “coming from somewhere big and open inside” her — the death of her ‘Ma’. The predicament of her two older sisters, Mona and Khush, and her grief-stricken ‘Pa’ is no different. The Gujarati community and their extended family are now more mindful of the goings-on of their bereft lives.
Squash at the Western Lane Sports Club, previously a leisurely activity, is made into a rigorous routine for the school-going girls by Pa. To Gopi, the most promising of the three, he says, “I want you to become interested in something you can do your whole life.” The void of loss looms large and threatens to unnerve the close-knit family. In a sense, squash becomes a coping mechanism. At a point, Pa advises, “Do not let your emotions control you when you are on court.”
The image of Pa watching from the stands, making notes, instructing, assessing ghosting exercises, setting up practice matches and planning for the big Durham and Cleveland tournament is reminiscent of the inspiring tension of ‘King Richard’ based on the William Sisters training under paternal eye. Measured snippets from squash history, and re-play of the videos of the great Pakistani champion Jahangir Khan’s matches against other great champions like Geoff Hunt, are delicately sprinkled onto the narrative. They evince Gopi’s deep feelings for her withdrawn, bereaved father and the game.
By folding in ‘unsung’ details about the formidable presence of Asian players and coaches in squash, Maroo seamlessly merges the story of immigrants into the spectacle of sports. Pa tells Gopi that the coach-cum-cousin, Rehmat, “took Jahangir Khan to the Khyber Pass, to remind him where he came from and who he was”, instantly invoking nativity. The culture of diaspora subtly surfaces through the crevices of the poignant tale. The sensitive narrator recalls how Pa “kept in touch with people” and most Sunday afternoons went visiting “an uncle or aunt or distant cousin, and then another and another”, in an attempt to reinforce family ties.
Silence has a telling presence and cryptic conversations carry the story forward. “The effort to speak made him wince,” says Gopi of her void-stunned Pa. The unsaid looms large over life concerns. The book subtly elevates the underrated quality of slowness in life, weaving in the spark in Gopi’s relationship with her boyfriend and fellow player, Ged as being “something to do with the time he taped my racket for me. And his stammer”. Befitting an adolescent storyteller, the expression is simple, sparse, pure and evocative, and the rhythm in control. The syntax remains in sync with the thrust of drives, volleys and rallies of squash in court, and lithely paces down for vivid descriptions symbolising emotional nuances.
‘Western Lane’ is a delicate addition to the literary tradition of sisterhood stories in line with ‘Vanessa and Her Sister’, ‘The Reunion of Ghosts’ and the like. Beginning with the resonance in the title itself, it shares overlaps of sisterly bonding plus South Asian connections with Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’. With the uncle and aunt expressing a desire to adopt one of the sisters, a strand of mystery runs right through the short novel. In addition, the convergence of multiple sentiments and expectations on the eve of the mega-match amplifies it as a sports thriller. Pick this one to check out why it glided into this year’s Booker longlist.