I spotted Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’ in Giggles. It did not occupy a pride of position. I might have missed it; it was tucked away under a pile of books. I had picked books, had my bill ready and was chatting with Nalini. I was visiting her bookshop after a gap of three months and she was narrating how she met Amitav Ghosh during his recent visit to the city. She had attended his book reading session, had been invited to join him for lunch and Ghosh had visited the bookshop. “He didn’t breathe a word about what is coming up next,” she went on when I spotted Srividya’s book. I pointed to the book. “You want that?” Nalini asked and went about carefully pulling the book out as she kept narrating about Ghosh’s visit to the bookshop. I looked at the book, passed it on to Nalini and asked her to include the price of the book in the bill. “You want to buy the book?” She paused, ran a thought in her mind and got her guess right “You know the author?” she asked. “Yes, we were together in school.” “Oh really?” her tone picked up, but it had gotten really late for me and I did not want another rally about knowing – meeting authors.
I had picked a few books, but launched on Srividya’s book first. Since then I have visited a few other bookshops and have found Srividya’s book. I have read blogs carrying reviews of the book. During these times of fanfare and tamasha that accompany book releases ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’ has made a calm entry. It is difficult for me to distance the book from my knowledge of the author who was my good friend during high school days. I shall attempt all the same!
Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions Nor Garlic’ is a comedy/satire/romance that deflates a range of things from academe to caste to marriage. The book lays open the caste politics in Madras University. Prof Ram the bumptious senior professor in the department of English has controlled who enters the portals of his department; he had ensured that no candidate from Palayankottai, a Dalit outpost saw the light of the day in the faculty of the Department. He bullied the Jivas and the Thamarai selvis; he had a coterie of old Brahmin foxes to support him. Despite his being a watchdog of Hinduism in the Department, he cannot stop the new wave of Dalit teachers and students who want to wash into the department like the waves at the Marina beach. He installs a statue of goddess Saraswathi la- the statue of Liberty, emerging out of the Bay of Bengal to dwarf the statue of Ambedkar installed in the English Department.
As the president of Tamil Brahmin Association (TamBramsAss), he is involved in taking head-on the upward movement of the Dalits that he calls trottitude or reverse troddenness where the scheduled castes “stomp with an upward motion” on the upper castes to deprive Brahmin boys of their “curd rice and lime pickle”. For this, he enlists his favourite student Sundar, but the hitch is recalcitrant Sundar is in love with Jiva, a Dalit girl. The novel goes to include the family orbit of Sundar, the No 5 Varadan street residents – chain smoking, blaspheming left oriented father, a typically Tam Bram mother- Sachu- who consults next door Bucket mami on all matters personal, Kitcha , the constipated brother who works in the R& D department of Jagadambal Pappadam and Condiments. To complicate matters Sundar is also engaged to Jay, Ram’s Canada returned daughter and Sundar’s sister is engaged to Chunky, Ram’s pompous son who is a research scholar at a University in Canada. This twin engagement is the coop pulled off by Mrs Ram and Sachu, for reasons that are varied. Oh yes, there is Akilan the native interpreter for Caroline, the foreign ethnographer visiting Chennai; Sastri the frustrated research student of Prof Ram who has written about ten drafts of his thesis; Swaminathan, Prof Ram’s uncle whose Tidbits Of Vedic Wisdom in The Bindu is what religious Tamil Brahmins prefer to start their day with besides their filter coffee and MS Subbalakshmi’s Venkateshwara Suprabatham; Thayee, the old woman who brings food for Prof Ram; Dr. Arul, a professor from the backward community and a eyesore to Prof Ram; thappu drummers and the people at Paravai village — all of these add dimensions to the tale of love in the world of casteism and reservations.
The novel captures the stinking face of Chennai – both literal and figurative. It begins first with Madurai Muniandi Vilas, the veritable breeding place of germs and stink, moves to No.5 Varadhan house where Kitcha’s nearly hour long ablutions of gargling and nose clearing could have actually caused the bathroom to cave in while Kitcha is still at the act. The story whizzes, giving us a vertigo, to the English department where Prof Ram and Dr Arul foul the air with the choicest of expletives that climax in the unpleasant act of Prof Ram biting Arul; then it taxies its the way to Paravai village where Chunky’s incontinence creates a local myth that is bound to find its way into the folklore that Caroline will painstakingly document with the help of Akilan.
Putting a Kollywood movie to shame the novel gets knotted with twists and turns. Sastri wields a gun to take revenge on Prof Ram; he makes the professor eat the drafts that run to 1662 pages of double spaced typescript. Thayee looks at the prone body of Ram (no, he does not die, after all) and screams ‘my nephew’ la Pandribai (of Tamil movie fame) style and then Ram’s uncle kindly steps on the stage to make public the secret behind Prof Ram’s birth. The frontbenchers who have come for first day first show are delighted – Machan, Ram is not a Brahmin. Ada pavi, he is thayee’s nephew. Ram’s mother, thayee’s sister was Swaminathan’s ‘keep’, she gave birth to twins, a boy and girl. One was adopted by Swaminathan’s brother, and the other, hold your breath, is Dr Arul who grew up in an orphanage. Fi ! Fi! Fi! We blow bigle and throw paisa on the screen. A part of the crowd get up – hey kasmalam, sit down; movie is not over as yet. Hey, that’s not it – Caroline and Jay are partners and Akilan and Sundar’s sister have been married secretly. As the burgundy curtain with its load of dust embedded in the folds falls, Jiva and Sundar run in slow motion towards each other. Paisa vasool.