When his daughter Maya eschews her traditionally arranged marriage to marry a white Canadian instead, Sripathi Rao cuts off ties completely. Fast forward several years later, and both Maya and her husband die in a car crash, leaving behind their seven-year-old daughter Nandana to join Sripathi and his family in India. Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk is an engrossing, beautifully written novel about family, and is one of the contenders in this year’s Canada Reads debates, being defended by Vinay Virmani.
The book blurb sounds rather sad, but the story itself is anything but. There’s a touch of melancholy of course, and much regret — both Sripathi at disowning his daughter and his wife Nirmala at conceding to her husband’s lead. But Badami creates wonderfully memorable characters and sprinkles the story with such warmth and humour that you can almost believe you’re peeking into the lives of a real family. Sripathi’s longing for tradition over modernity, his discomfort with new technology and his self-conscious sense of inadequacy against the younger and savvier co-workers at his advertising job, renders him sympathetic. Even his harsh treatment of his daughter is counterbalanced by his daughter’s rather selfish (to my mind) dumping on her father the responsibility of breaking the news to her original fiance’s family. Sripathi appears, above all, as a hapless man unable to stop the world from changing, even as his pride prevents him from adapting to it.
Nandana, as the child protagonist, is surprisingly well developed a character for a seven year old. Her longing for her parents, and her desire to belong in her new home, are both palpable. I especially love how Badami turns the traditional #CanLit immigrant story on its head — rather than the usual immigrant-adjusting-to-Canada tale, Nandana is a Canadian child who has immigrated to India, and despite being half-Indian and potentially appearing Indian, she is viewed by her peers as a foreigner. North American behaviour such as eating cereal for breakfast, leaving lost teeth for the tooth fairy, or going to school without a uniform are now foreign, and it’s an interesting, and welcome, shift in perspective.
While Sripathi and Nandana’s stories are both gripping, for me it is a secondary character, Sripathi’s sister Putti, whose story really shines through. Being unmarried and a woman, Putti is designated as the caretaker of Sripathi’s and her mother Ammayya, the dominating matriarch of the family. Putti has been presented with a range of prospective husbands over the years, but Ammayya has always found one flaw or another in them, and it soon becomes clear that Ammayya would much rather keep Putti unmarried and caring for her than married with her own family. Enter a handsome milkman, to whom Putti is extremely attracted but who is so unsuitable a match that even Putti herself doesn’t consider him as a potential husband, and the result is possibly my favourite subplot in this novel, and a must-read for any fans of slow burning romances. A minor twist involving a potential, matchmaker-approved mate, just adds humour and suspense to this part of the tale.
Sripathi’s son Arun, as a political revolutionary, isn’t quite developed enough to be truly interesting, but the other family members — Nirmala and Ammayya are both wonderful and so much fun to read about. Ammayya’s characterization takes a bit of a caricaturish tone at some points, but Badami gives just enough backstory to keep her real, and any exaggeration is counterbalanced by the very real power she holds over her children’s lives.
The Hero’s Walk is a wonderful story. It’s warm and touching, alternately heartbreaking and hilarious. What can I say? The characters breathe on the page, and I only want more of their stories. The Hero’s Walk has recently been optioned for film, and it will be fantastic to see this story come to life on screen.
Check out the book trailer here:
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
As of this writing, The Hero’s Walk is still in the running for Canada Reads 2016. Follow the debates and listen to Vinay Virmani’s defence of this book on CBC.