A Googly in the Compound: a novel of the Raj, Boman Desai, 2021, 436 pp, pb, 17.99, 979-8716256620
Navsari, Gujarati, India
September 25, 1945
Kavas’s tragedy bonded the family every year, but looking at her sons Dolly still felt a weakness in her bones, like the change of weather on a fracture long healed, teeth gnawing at the crack, tongue flicking at the marrow.
The Sanjana family is breakfasting on the twenty-ninth anniversary of Kavas Sanjana’s death. Kavas’s widow, Dolly, and his brother, Phiroze, have returned from Bombay to Navsari with their family, as they do every year, to commemorate the tragedy that took Kavas’s life and enabled Dolly and Phiroze to become husband and wife.
Dolly’s firstborn son, Sohrab, fathered by the melancholy, mercurial Kavas, is a lawyer married to Daisy, an Englishwoman and the mother of their two sons. Rustom, son of Dolly and Phiroze, is recovering from a bullet to the brain sustained in the war in Burma, and is planning to study Medicine once the world recovers from WWII.
As the brothers argue about politics, Dolly fears once more, as she has all their lives, that the gene at the root of the secret, terrible tragedy that took her first husband and continues to haunt her, might have found its way into her boys.
Divided into five parts, this breakfast on the morning of September 25, 1945, introduces the characters in a story that began in 1913 and that involves each person at the table, the servant Alphonse, who is ordered to disperse the monkeys in the trees overhanging the roof, and Victoria, the family’s pet tiger asleep—for the moment—in a back room.
As each of the five breakfast scenes progresses, the reader learns more about the family dynamics and becomes intrigued by how they might have come about. And just as the captivated reader is asking herself, for example, “Okay, who is Daisy and how does she fit in?”, author Desai opens a new chapter and takes the reader back to London on Jubilee Day, 1935, where Daisy is about to meet the young Communist whose cryptic correspondence will one day draw her to Navsari and into the Sanjana family.
A googly, Desai tells us, is “in cricket, a ball bowled to catch the batsman off guard; expected to spin in one direction, it takes off in another.” Desai’s story bowls googly after googly, each one bringing the reader deeper into the mystery at the heart of Dolly’s gnawing dread. And with each chapter, almost a novel itself, Desai brings the reader more fully into not only the character whose life that chapter reveals, but also into India, two world wars, and the intricacies of both family life and the bone-deep class conflicts underlying race relations in colonial India.
The story, richly detailed and absorbing, is a banquet, and its construction—a breakfast scene divided into five acts interspersed with life stories rife with history—is a master class in narratology and temporal ordering. The prose is gorgeous, the story gripping.