The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami.
The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami. Ballantine Books (2002), Edition: Reprint, 359 pages
A delightful novel set in south India about a large family who become heroes of their own lives when an orphaned Canadian granddaughter comes to live with them.
Anita Rau Badami was born in India in 1961. She grew up and attended college there. Emigrating to Canada in 1991, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Calgary where she wrote her first novel Tamarind Woman as her thesis. This is her second novel. She now lives in Vancouver, which she enjoys, but the noisy bustle of India remains dear to her. She is particularly interested in the gap between the cultures she has known in India and Canada and with the impact of changes within India.
A Hero’s Walk is set in an imaginary town in South India near Madras and centers on a once-wealthy family living in a crumbling ancestral mansion. The head of the family is Sripathi Rao, a middle-aged man disappointed with the loss of his own ambitions and those of his mother. His life has come to focus of his sense of duty and appearances, and he often cuts out those who intrude on his narrow life. His wife, Nirmala, is a sweet, passive woman, unwilling to shake up those around her by pursuing what she believes is right. Sripathi’s mother, Ammayya, is in her eighties and full of anger at her own losses. Putti is Sripathi’s sister. She is also full of anger about the emptiness of her own life, primarily because the failure of Sripathi and Ammayya to approve a husband for her although she is in her thirties. Also living in the home is Arun, the grown son of Sripathi and Nirmala, who spends his time protesting the corruption of Indian life and resisting his father’s nagging him to get a job.
As the book opens, Maya, the couple’s daughter, has been killed along with her husband in far off Vancouver. Despite having broken off with Maya over her marriage to a Canadian nine years earlier, the family must take her orphaned daughter, Nandana, age 7. The child is so traumatized by her parents’ deaths and by the strangeness of India that she refuses to speak for months. Her entrance, however, contributes to various insights and experiences that echo through the whole household.
Badami is an excellent writer, very attuned to the hidden messages that swirl around the large family. Writing in third person, she focuses on the individual family members, revealing their often contradictory thoughts and feeling. Her description of street scenes in India are vivid and illuminating. The family at the center of the book are Hindu, but not a pure version of the faith. Children go to a Roman Catholic School, and superstitions are interwoven in their troubled thoughts. The grandmother constantly flares up because the others no longer practice the caste system and do not protect her from exposure to people who belong to the lowest classes.
In the book’s “Reader’s Guide,” Badami explains the title and theme. She describes the dramatic dance-form she knew as a child in India. Each character had a distinctive style of walking. The “hero’s walk” was an identifying mark. Badami sees each of her characters, all of them ordinary Indians, finding ways of being heroes. All, that is except the grandmother, who remains committed to her long-lost caste privileges.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and was particularly pleased to be immersed in a generally Hindu way of life. All of the characters were believable mixes of laudable qualities and infuriating ones. Although the books contains loss and pain, the characters move beyond their earlier narrowness as the plot progresses.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to readers, especially those interested in India, Hinduism, or family dynamics. With its variety of characters and issues, I think it would a fine choice for a book group.