Cover photo of 'Western Lane' by Chetna Maroo. (Image by Arrangement)
A Gujarati housewife, Charu, dies in the course of a warm London summer. She leaves behind her husband, Pa, an uncommunicative electrician, and three daughters, Mona, Khush, and Gopi, all of whom have been playing squash at Western Lane since they were big enough to pick up rackets. Gopi, the youngest, eleven when the story begins, tells us how they come to terms with their loss.
Members of the extended family gather in support. Pa’s brother Pavan, who lives in Edinburgh with his wife Ranjan, is childless. Ranjan, on a visit, tells Pa that the girls are going ‘wild’, and she and Pavan offer to adopt one of the three.
Though he tries not to let on, Pa is worse affected than the girls: It shows in his increasing inattention to his work, and his decreasing income. He doesn’t know what to do. Having accepted Auntie Ranjan’s dictum that the girls are going wild, wanting to keep all three with him, Pa tries to get them to work very hard on something all four like: Squash. A Pakistani friend, Maqsud, an enthusiast who knows the most famous Pakistani squash players of all time, helps the girls with their squash. Maqsud’s nephew Shaan, himself a player, turns up at Western Lane one day. Meeting him seems to raise Mona’s spirits, for she takes up after-school work soon after to supplement their income.
What was enjoyable leisure time activity while Ma was around becomes a daily grind, leaving them all exhausted. Something has to break, and one day, it does. Gopi loses control while practicing with Pa, who ends up injured. Gopi finds herself barred from playing with Ged, with whom a relationship of sorts is burgeoning, by his mother. And so Gopi goes to Edinburgh.
There is a championship in the offing, the Durham and Cleveland Cup. Auntie Ranjan at first puts her foot down: No squash. But Pavan wins Ranjan over, and Gopi resumes her practice...
Hollywood staple, you might say, but it’s telling of the tale that makes the difference. The language is simple, the vocabulary you might expect a well-read twelve-year-old to use, the universe reduced sometimes to the squash court, of which Ms Maroo writes with remarkable authenticity.
The characters emerge clearly as the story progresses. Ma, gone, is perhaps sketchy, but Pa, strong and silent, is clearly not good at emotions. Mona, the eldest of the sisters, a bit aggressive, willing to care for her younger siblings when the going gets tough, and perhaps quick to fight. Khush, the middle sister, is guileless and transparent with her emotions. Gopi herself is quiet and observant, understanding more than is said.
Uncle Pavan, soft-spoken, and persuasive, persuades Ranjan to put aside some of her prejudices: She ends up allowing Gopi to practice squash in Edinburgh and to participate in the tournament, both of which she initially bars. Ranjan herself is conservative, and, perhaps because of not having children of her own, somewhat harsh with Gopi in the beginning.
This is a small book, delicately written, and in its compactness and simplicity and restraint lies its beauty. So what’s to cavil at? The narrator, a pre-teen girl just entering puberty — she has her first period in the course of the story — seems unnaturally mature, perceptive, even wise. People arriving at puberty’s rush of hormones tend to be self-absorbed, especially in the face of bereavement. Gopi’s understanding of court craft and the depth of her insights into the game, too, are astounding, to the point they seem difficult to believe.
A pattern emerges in Ms Maroo’s writing: A series of simple descriptive sentences followed by a powerful insight. It doesn’t grate in this story, but...
These are merely nits for the picker, though. Let them be, and you have a strong tale, well and sensitively told.
Excerpt: (p 119, para 2 on):
It was just me and him. He stood outside the court with his coat on and instructed me. He made me sprint for a few minutes until I was warm. Then he told me to set my own drill. I kept it simple and slow. Drives, followed by drops.
‘Good,’ he said. His voice was thick. He sounded almost surprised. I thought that what had surprised him was the drills I had chosen. There was nothing much to them, but I was capable of doing them well.
I kept going, keeping everything steady.
After several drills, Pa said, ‘Come out.’
It was the same thick voice. It seemed to cover me. We sat on the bench and I tried to quieten my breathing.
Pa said, ‘You like your uncle.’
I didn’t know if it was a question. I replied, ‘I like him a lot,’ and I knew I had done the right thing when Pa’s voice thickened again.
‘It has been hard for your since Ma…’
I sat very close to him and we listened to doors opening and closing upstairs.
By Chetna Maroo
pp. 163; Rs 599