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Life in the Details

N Kalyan Raman

The Hills of Angheri by Kaveri Nambisan, Penguin India, New Delhi, 2005 , 392 pages, Rs. 350/=

Kaveri Nambisan’s novel, The Hills of Angheri is unusual in several ways. Hills is a straight-forward narrative set in contemporary India, the life-story of a Midnight’s Child that is all too real. Instead of a maze of plots and subplots that is redolent of our storytelling tradition, we follow the destiny of one person, Nalinakshi, as she makes her way in the world from pesky childhood to a lonely crossroads in early middle age. Again, contrary to our national trait of relegating life at work to a position of little or no significance, Nalinakshi’s dreams of growing up to be a doctor and her adult vocation as a surgeon working in a succession of starkly different settings are central to her life and this finely wrought novel.

In the opening pages, we encounter Nalinakshi—Nalli—as the younger child of a school headmaster in Angheri, a fictional village not far from Mysore. Nalli grows up in a loving household with her parents, grandparents, younger sister, Sujju and cousins, Vishnu and Budhi. Her world is inhabited also by her childhood companion, Jayanth—Jai—son of Shankar Master. And then there are the hills adjoining the village, towering over the lives of the villagers and dominating the imagination of at least one dreamy child—Nalli:

‘The hills made Angheri special. Ajja said that without the hills there would be no sunrise or the rising ball of the moon at night. On their strong shoulders, the clouds nuzzled, thunder rolled and lightning crashed. The winds chased the clouds around their noble girth, beasts played on the lap of the hills and, time and again, armies going to war marched across.’

Brought up in a gentle, placid and almost dull environment, Nalli hungers for the yet unknown world that lay beyond her beloved hills. In time, overcoming the skepticism and resistance of her traditional family, which would rather see her married at 16, she travels to distant Madras to attend Medical College and become a doctor. In this, she is following in the footsteps of Jai, her childhood friend who is expected to come back to the village to set up a hospital there.

From here on, Nambisan takes the narrative on two intertwined tracks. The first is Nalli’s engagement as a student of medicine and then as a practitioner. As a student doctor, Nalli is heir to a body of knowledge that comes to her through the Ages: from ancient Greece, Rome, Cordoba and Egypt. Her professional world is not just a site of diligence, courage, idealism and profound wisdom about human life but also one of avarice, egotism, deceit and sterility. Nalli learns to soldier on. When she is shaken at seeing a patient die for the first time, her mentor tells her: ‘It’s a rare opportunity to wait upon the dying. We’re so eager to wait upon important people, on royalty. The dying are royalty.’ She would understand it only much, much later.

During her internship in a hospital in Mysore, Nalli resolves to train as a surgeon when she sees a real need for competent surgeons in rural hospitals. With luck and help from Dr. Bhansali, her mentor, she trains at a reputed university in England and obtains the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. However, her career in England is cut short by tragic developments in her family back in Angheri, to which she must return. After failing to persuade Jai to leave his lucrative career as a famous surgeon in Mumbai to join hands with her in building a hospital in Angheri, Nalli contemplates going it alone, only to learn that she would be rejected by the people of Angheri.

Partly to get away from personal disappointment and grief, Nalli signs up to work at a hospital for the poor run by Sevashram, a religious outfit, in Kishenganj, near Mathura. After a few years in Kishenganj among the endearing, odd village folk, restless Nalli returns to Madras and works briefly in a family-run ‘corporate’ hospital. Soon, she is in for another round of disappointment with her alter ego, Jai, who, disillusioned by now with Mumbai, wants to resume his career (and life) with Nalli in Madras.

Jai tells Nalli: ‘…You are angry with me for refusing Angheri. Why can’t you see it as it is? Villages belong to the past. In a village, you can’t do anything important, you can’t be anyone important…’ After half a lifetime of wandering, Nalli heads back to the one certainty in her life: the hills of her village.

The other track follows Nalli in her personal journey of evolution: her struggle as a girl child who opts for professional education in a distant city instead of early marriage; her bond with Jai which survives her thwarted love for him and an even worse disappointment; her sexual flirtation with Vishnu, her cousin, to whom she is often meekly submissive; her choosing to train as a surgeon in spite of being “a woman with a bad back”; her confused longing for affinity, resulting in sporadic, half-hearted intimacies; and most of all, her unswerving mission to live for a purpose larger than herself in spite of the hurdles and disappointments.

One remarkable feature of The Hills of Angheri is the rich and vivid portrayal the author brings to us of the ‘ecology’ of the medical profession—more precisely, the world in which a surgeon operates. There are the teachers—Badri , Nawab, Bhansali—through whose expert hands, knowledge and skills must pass to the next generation of students for the task of healing that will never cease. From nurses, orderlies and roadside oracles, to anesthetists, medical superintendents and owner-managers, Nambisan fleshes out the daily spectacle in a hospital of afflicted bodies and lives being restored (or not) to health and makes us alive to its human dance. We also see, in different settings but united in their condition, a variety of patients in human states—hopeful, angry, naïve, endearing, stoic, and not infrequently, dead. The reader is also treated to crisp but accessible descriptions of several common and some not-so-common surgical procedures; and to the rituals and protocol of the Operation Theatre, in such detail that Nambisan makes this arcane world come alive for the reader.

Nalli’s personal life is engaging. She refuses to be reified and firmly rejects life-options dictated by tradition; as she battles constraints that beset her gendered existence with humour;, gentleness and a growing wisdom. Not least, Nalli remains an idealist through it all, loyal to her dream-like aspirations.

Nalli is, if you will, an existential hero, much like the protagonist Chitra in Nambisan’s earlier novel, Mango Coloured Fish. These are perhaps the only such women characters you can find in the IWE world. Other women writers, if at all their characters depart from the traditional framework of family and marriage, tend to mythologize and romanticize such protagonists. Nambisan’s are the recognizably messed-up, confused, idealistic and hardworking women, who are also given naturally to multiple affections. After reading their stories, you might want to ask: what does existential heroism mean in these years? Is there really space for discovery of the self and the world by such people? Do they at all succeed in posing new questions? Are they pushing the envelope as their archetypes, belonging to an uncertain wartime Europe, did in the first half of the last century? Finally, what does this existential heroine (or even the one in Mango Coloured Fish) stand for in the Indian environment? Does she go beyond—or even deal effectively with—the politics of (her) gendered existence? One might even wonder if this meticulously crafted novel is about the played-out destiny of a particular generation of Indians.

Another facet of Hills is the first-person narrative, refracted through the prism Nalli’s self-regard. Consider this: Nallli traverses great distances and many landscapes through the novel's progress—from schooldays in Angheri to college in Madras to internship in Mysore to FRCS in England; and then to Keshavganj near Mathura and back to commercial healthcare services in Madras. We are all familiar with such trajectories: indeed, some of us have lived them in our different ways. But what do these disruptive, discontinuous journeys do to Nalli's personality, her sense of destiny, her response to the world? One might have thought that her affinities and her orientation would not always be stable, but our Nalli is very together always, if a little eccentric at times. She sees herself with such clarity (in the narrative) that at times, she feels more written than alive. She can be morally ambivalent on occasion, but she never pays for the ambivalence, nor is she ambivalent for long. As a human being, she is correct and gets it right, always, even as her alter ago and object of desire, Jai, gets it wrong quite precisely, predictably.

At times, the book reads like one of Nagesh Kukunoor’s film scripts: finely wrought, but overdetermined. Through the first half of the book, Nalli seems to be largely what the author says she is. Even when she is a free spirit wandering the wilds of life, Nalli is no more than what the author has written. While she is finely drawn and the drawing elicits the reader's admiration, the reader becomes aware that there is no space in which he, the reader, can imagine Nalli.

Finally, an observation about language and style of narration as a function of environment. The sections covering Angheri and Madras – in the first half of the book - are heavy on atmospherics, with details verging on the anthropological. It made one realize that in an English-language narrative, Indians construct their Indian reality in a different way than the rest: they belabour the everyday and the obvious (when they refer to them at all, consciously). In Nambisan’s novel, because of the “ethnic” setting of Angheri and Mysore, this has been unavoidable. Up to a point, such a style is enjoyable but overworked detail – ‘the cock with his blue-black plumage high-stepped across the yard in search of worms’ – often serves to obscure the human reality. If you were writing in Kannada about a rural setting, you wouldn't go into such detail. A rooster in the backyard may not merit such description, and you would focus on the people right away.

The author quotes Hippocrates: ‘Our natures are the physicians of our diseases.’ How true it is, then, of our Nalinakshi!

This review was published in the journal, Biblio Vol XI NOS 3 & 4, March-April 2006


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