Book Title: The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao
Author: Lindsay Pereira
A narrator with a story to divulge, an epochal event to expose, a host of emotions to share... The title of author Lindsay Pereira’s novel ‘The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao’ is a giveaway even before one digs into the many pages. He chooses a retired postman, Valmiki Ratnakar Rao, ‘existing’ in a Mumbai slum during his ageing years, amid stench, penury and resigned helplessness, to set the tone.
Set in two chawls, Ganga Niwas and Sri Niwas, separated by a street, the action unfolds post the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, when raging riots in Ayodhya burnt Mumbai too. Within the broader scheme of things is a microcosm that has characters like Ramu, Lakhya, Bantya, Janaki, Manisha, Surbha, Sundar and Ravi anna, the quintessential villain, who ‘placed himself beyond the rules’. And, of course, the diarist, Valmiki, whose memoirs pretty much compose the plot.
Despite the rut, throttling rooms and stinking common toilets, everything is in equilibrium at Ganga Niwas, a place where ‘there were no secrets… everyone knew what their neighbours were up to’. Unemployment and hopes of a secure future force Ramu into the quagmire of divisive politics, with a party backing a soul pushed to the periphery of socio-economic existence; ignorant, yet willing to take the step ahead, unafraid and unmindful. Blood flows and lives are lost as all hell breaks loose in the chawls. Personal scores are settled, but religious agenda reigns supreme. Gangs, rivalry, tie-ups, carrom and matka competitions are all a part of the plot. Money is showered on small-time brats by political bigwigs to serve their own ends. Ramu becomes a ‘nameless cog’ in the decayed system, where manipulation is rife, where lives don’t matter, parochial gains do.
Meanwhile, for the author, if there is a Valmiki, there has to be Ram (Ramu), Sita (Janaki), Lakhya (Lakshman) and Ravan (Ravi), but reasons behind his parallels to the sacred epic, the ‘Ramayana’, are puzzling. Why the ‘Ramayana’? Could it not be the ‘Mahabharata’? The references seem injected, not organic. Were they even needed in a plot that could have stood its ground without them?
‘A retired postman… was not allowed to have an opinion,’ Valmiki, the author’s mouthpiece, emphatically says, and yet through him, Pereira conveys his political leanings in no half measures. Also, the length of the novel is a tad bit longer than warranted.
On the brighter side, the author’s diction is par excellence; he has incisive humour that sparkles in sentences like ‘there were young men with serious anger management problems and no jobs to distract them’. There are umpteen such examples that highlight his creative gift and make the fare interesting, if not impressive.