Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Cambridge Curry Club: Rather bland

Originally published in 2004, Saumya Balsari’s novel was voted Cambridgeshire Book of the Decade in 2010, so my expectations were high. Set largely in the (fictional) IndiaNeed charity shop in (the real) Mill Road, celebrated locally as a Bohemian multi-ethnic area but in fact a rather tatty, down at heel street, this is a welcome change from a focus on the colleges and posh bits of Cambridge. Every Thursday four volunteers gather in the charity shop founded by the irredeemably posh Mrs Diana Wellington-Smythe: three Indian and one (Catholic) Northern Irish; and the plot, such as it is, revolves around them and their nearest and dearest (and frankly not so dearest), with a varied cast passing through the story, both within the shop and outside it.

Sad to say it is unclear what prompted the Book of the Decade judges to award it the prize. It is uneven in tone and feels as if it would have benefited from further development. It has lovely descriptive passages, but the effect of emphasising character over plot is that the whole has the feel of a series of vignettes rather than a novel-length narrative. When drama is introduced towards the end, the book becomes a clumsy relation of Tom Sharpe farces, particularly the ridiculous, and woefully underdeveloped, section in which an elderly lady dies and is propped up in the window, and then palmed off on someone without him noticing he is pushing a corpse in a wheelchair.

Where the book catches fire is not the passages describing the conversations and goings-on in Mill Road but in the long digression describing Durga’s life in India. It feels as if it was inserted to make up the pages to novel length, but this is the best part of the book, at least to this non-Indian. It highlights the rest as stilted and unconvincing, and gives a hint of the book Balsari perhaps should have produced. She writes with an affectionate eye and is probably shrewdly observant about Asian society and relationships, deftly sketching in the Indian trio’s back stories. The ending is particularly poignant, and shows an empathy with the characters and their mores.

Unfortunately, this perceptiveness does not extend to her white characters. The founder of the charity shop, Diana Wellington-Smythe, is as crude a caricature as her name suggests, and Balsari supplies implausible dialogue for her white characters, including an excruciating lor‘ luv-a-duck cockney who seems to have come up from My Fair Lady for the day. The non-Asian characters – Eileen, the Irish charity shop worker with a tenth of her colleagues’ dialogue, Heera’s English husband Bob struggling with his sexuality, Roman the American academic falling in love with Durga on sight – never leave the page. Adam, the gay man who has more time for his parrot than his lovers is the most successful of the non-ethnic characters, but sadly, as with the other white supporting cast, his appearance is a fairly brief one.

Balsari writes well about the Asian ambivalence towards the word ‘home’, perhaps putting her finger on a flaw in multiculturalism, as if living in Cambridge just means acting as if still in Kolkata while wearing extra jumpers. Even Durga, born in London but brought up in India, does not seem at ease with her dual identity. Balsari is presumably trying to show that we are all alike beneath the skin, with similar preoccupations and foibles, but The Cambridge Curry Club undermines that attempt at universality.

One surprising omission in this celebration of diversity is religion. Swarnakumari is admittedly devoted to the teachings of Guru Ma, to the amusement of her co-workers, but there is surprisingly no mention of the mosque and temple which play such a prominent role in the cultural life of Mill Road. It is as if Balsari does not want too much prickly realism to intrude in her cosy vision. The result is probably best described as chick lit with an ensemble cast and an ethnic twist.

I am left puzzled why the Book of the Decade judges shortlisted The Cambridge Curry Club, and have to assume that they simultaneously liked its local flavour – Balsari piles on the local detail, seemingly intent to mention every locality and quite a few of the shops in Cambridge, which will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the city and its environs – its suggestion of exotic internationalism, and display of getting-along-together. If so, they were guilty of patronising Balsari, displaying a post-colonial condescension that must make her feel uncomfortable. An Arts Council subsidy reinforces the sense that this was a book that needed a helping hand.

As for the purported internationalism, it is ironic that while Balsari wants to present Cambridge as a microcosm of the world, which of course it is, she has made it all seem so provincial and dull, despite the suggestively phallic-looking chilli on the cover. That The Cambridge Curry Club was considered by readers to be the best book produced in the county in the last decade (the ten shortlisted titles were voted on by members of the public) perhaps indicates that many of us cannot bear too much reality. On the other hand, if this really is the Book of the Decade, Cambridge needs to pull up its literary socks sharpish.