Literature of India: The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar

More than any other kind of novel, I expect the Historical novel to have memorable characters. The past already provides events of great interest which the writer weaves into the plot but it is really the characters that make us care about their life and times.

And this is where David Davidar’s debut novel The House of Blue Mangoes fails.

The story which begins in the last year of the nineteenth century and ends almost fifty years later in 1947, with an India free but brutally cleaved, and which chronicles the rise-and-fall of three generations of the Dorai family, does not provide a single character whose fate interested me or with whom I could find any connect.

The novel has its moments as when an aimless and bitter Aaron Dorai joins a fledgling revolutionary group and then realises that he will have to shoot a man:

How do you kill a man? In cold blood? If you’re a man like any other, a thinking, feeling, insecure man trying to lead a reasonable life, a man who is not in the grip of a great rage, a normal man, how do you kill a man who has done you no harm? Do you think of him as a disgusting envelope of shit and piss and dirty thoughts, whom it’d be a blessing to erase from the pitiful piece of earth he occupies? Or do you paint him as a monster that you can eliminate him with ease? The realization dawned on them that no amount of prevarication could conceal the awful truth – that their target was a man not very different from themselves, who lived and breathed, who could be so wearied by living that on occasion he could think how blissful it would be to live no more, but yet went on, day after day, getting on with the business of living, trying to keep his wife and children fed. Was it possible, through some extraordinary sleight of mind, to see this poor ineffectual functionary of the state as the ENEMY? Could they? Could they?

…Madhavan’s voice came to him. ‘The stomach. Fill your mind with your frustrated contempt for me, you spineless fool, fill it with your desperate desire to make some sense of your wasted life and put a bullet in this good man’s stomach.’

The passages describing the horrendous treatment merited out to the revolutionaries in prisons by the British superintendent are gut-wrenching and some passages at the end are evocative as the last thoughts of a dying man:

…Mostly, I regretted the things I hadn’t done, I thought about quarrels that hadn’t been resolved, I thought about matters left incomplete. It’s one of the paradoxes of life, and is something that each one of you will discover, that your achievements, your successes, your crowning glories do not matter to you at the end of your life. No, no, no, if I leave you with nothing else, I leave you with this piece of wisdom – it’s your regrets that stay with you till you die.

And this brilliant piece about the passage of time:

A statue fleshed in stone would rise in Meenakshikoil; three streets would be named after him. Doraipuram would remember Daniel for at least a generation. And those who knew him would remember him too for a while. Barely two decades later, sun, sand and water would begin eroding the statue. His name would survive a couple of decades longer and then he would become just a landmark with no resonance – turn right at the Dorai statue roundabout and go straight to get to the Madras Ulundu Vadai Cafe.

At times, tilted towards a Western readership, the book is okay for a one-time read.


First Line: SPRING 1899
Publication Details: ND: Viking, 2002
First Published: 2002
Pages: 421
Source: CL [823 D28H]
Other books read of the same author: None

6 thoughts on “Literature of India: The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar

  1. I couldn't agree more, Neeru, that character development is crucial to a good historical novel. Without strong characters, the novel suffers. That said though, I really do like the passages you've shared. There's some very elegant writing.


  2. The book has a lovely title and all the covers are great. Too bad it did not have memorable characters. I would have problems with reading about the bad treatment of prisoners.


  3. Totally agree Tracy regarding the title and covers. The description about how inhumanely the prisoners were treated was tough to read especially one passage where Aaron as to clean the prison toilets which are basically drowning in human excreta. Terrible.


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