I don’t think I have read any Indian book in recent times as avidly as I did Kalpana Swaminathan’s Ambrosia for Afters. This is a brilliant book, and one of the rare breed that targets young adults as much as it does older readers. This to me is a crossover book, a book in the line of classics like Catcher in the Rye, books that defy classification of readership by age (not that Ambrosia has been positioned a novel for young adults). I have read two such stunning books this year, the Australian Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca and Kalpana Swaminathans Ambrosia. Both give you real worlds, worlds that somehow still surprise you as such fictional worlds must. Why hasn’t this been done before you wonder, why not with this or that particular generation, why not in this manner? Kalpana Swaminathans is a far more (consciously) literary work, one of its pleasures being its uses of literature, of other texts. It is a world about the uses of fiction, about the uses of imagination, about the reality of the various worlds many of us inhabit, some for at least at a certain stage in our life.
The protagonist of the novel, its narrator, is Tenral, a fifteen year old Tamil (not that this linguistic/cultural identify is of import in this novel) girl in her school leaving year. Set in Bombay of 1972, Ambrosia is at one level a school novel, drawing for us immediately resonant pictures of school students, teachers and the Exam year. Tenral is an intelligent student who does well in almost all subjects and is brilliant at writing. We see examples throughout of her attempts at fairy tales, tales that make sense of the reality that she encounters in terms of the paradigms that the brothers Grimm left for us in their sometimes so forbidding tales. Tenral, Dolly, and Shirin are the trio that go through this disconcerting year together and take on all that life and fantasy throw at them including loves from cousins far and near to Rajesh Khanna. They are at the age that is considered to be the threshold and they know that they are there and that they don’t know what it is the threshold to but also that the threshold is a world in itself for them.
Tenral seems to inhabit at least two different worlds, one of the workaday school and Exam year and family (who really except for the cousin Arun figure only in the margins of her life), and the other of the Song. That is the realm of the universal imagination, the music of the spheres, one which takes you out of the world while so much a part of it. This is an orgasmic merger with the joy of being itself (and so easily—is understood as the ecstasy brought on by masturbation by a fellow school girl), something that makes Tenral special. Endowed with sensitivity and imagination, she weaves stories around her teachers, stories to which her friends contribute with glee almost throughout the book. The correspondences between Tenral’s flights of fancy and the reality are to crash into her world towards the end of the book. The stories are initially about their English teacher, Mrs. Alfie as they call her, and her lost love Alfie. The stories that they construct about the illicit or unfulfilled I passion of the English teacher fuel an obsessive curiosity in Tenral. She haunts the cottage of the teacher and listens to her reading poems aloud in the evenings. She imagines that the spirit of Alfie inhabits the cottage and that Mrs. Fleur D Cruz (the teachers ‘real’ name) shares a hidden life with her dead lower. Thus they enter Tenral’s other life of the Song, of oneness with the universe.
Other characters intrude into this wold and stories are made about them as well. Mrs. Tilak, the most unsatisfactory substitute for Mrs. Alife, and Mr. Tilak, the Math teacher. Mr. Tilak is unexpectedly simpatico and understands the world of the Song. But what webs ai being spun around the lives of these folks? A simple school picnic portends disaster and the breaking up of this world. What are the stresses that Mrs. Alfie is under and how on earth is Tenral to cope with all this in the Exam year? Mrs. Alfie’s health seems to be under constant attack and a breakdown brings into this world her seemingly mad mother. The mother’s revelation to Tenral about Mrs. Alfie’s past life is horrendous add completely shakes her up. She is sucked into the real life story of Mrs. Alfie and realizes the roles that different people have played in Mrs. Alfie’s life.
Tenral learns how difficult it is to realize truths, to make choices. Who are the witches in this world and who the big bad wolves? How does o recognize the poisoner and escape the poison? How is one to live happy ever after in this world and what would that mean? Do we all just grit our teeth and do what we must because we expect to have ambrosia to afters? Is life finally only a desolate plain that we must cross in our own ways certain only of intermittent disappointments? That is what it seems finally to her. Except that her soul can be unlocked by words—and what words! This is a brilliantly written novel where the language soars with the joy of its own discovery; this is how the really young at heart must write trying out every trick, juggling with words, doing balancing acts walking the tightrope; trapezing through thin air knowing they will be certainly caught up by other words.
The write up about the author says that she has written a number c books for children. I do not know when her next book will be publish and I refuse to wait for it – I am going out to get the children’s books.
G.J.V. Prasad is the author of Continuities in Indian English Poetry: Nation Language Form (Pencraft, 1999).