The Hero's Walk: Anita Rau Badami
India Today June 2001

In one of his books, Henry Miller asks, "Who is a hero?" "Primarily," he declares, "one who has conquered his fears." By that definition, the true hero in Anita Rau Badami's charming and lyrical second novel The Hero's Walk is Nirmala, who in the book blurb is merely categorised as 'wife'.

There is Sripathi Rao, 'aged fifty-seven, father of two children [one dead], burnt out copywriter' and a man given to writing countless letters to newspapers for the sheer pleasure of seeing his by-line Pro Bono Publico in print. Then there is his lonely spinster sister Putti nurturing a passion for Gopala, a very unsuitable bachelor and her bitter manipulative mother Ammayya. And there is Sripathi Rao's activist son Arun and Nirmala. Together and separate, in the Big House on Brahmin street in Toturpuram, a fictitious town three hours away from Madras City, they lead, to quote Thoreau - lives of quiet desperation.

The novel begins with a phone call from Vancouver informing Sripathi Rao that his estranged daughter and her husband are killed. From that moment, the lives of the inmates of the Big House change. For there is seven year old Nandana who retreats into silence after her parents death.

It is then, the novel begins to breath…and grow in stature from just another book to an exemplary one.

Nandana is brought to Toturpuram. While Sripathi Rao is torn between keeping his job and an all consuming regret and guilt about the past, Nirmala who had until then been the superlative docile wife [ who doesn't dare ask her daughter to come home because Sripathi Rao had severed all ties with her], shrugs aside her fears and tries to cope with little support from her husband or anyone else. Dealing with a child who is still in a state of shock; with a mother in law who is vicious and vulnerable in turns; with a sister in law who has lost almost all hope of ever being married; with a house that's falling apart…Nirmala sets about doing the right thing. Mending broken spirits and healing wounded ones. Nirmala in her own words becomes 'the hero.' Walking with dignity. Walking with courage and humility. Lifting her head high. While Sripathi Rao remains a man who is 'too proud and therefore not heroic."

In many ways, The Hero's Walk is like a painting of a battle scene. Of the moment just when triumph is staring in the hero's face. But what makes the picture striking is its wealth of matter: The other principal warriors each fighting their own battles. Minor characters who fill the spaces. The asides and corollaries. The seemingly irrelevant but quaint details. But together, they add to the texture and to the power of the hero's victory. And it is here that Badami triumphs. As a writer who understands both human strengths and frailties and yet capitalises on neither. Making her characters real rather than larger than life uni-dimensional cutouts. There is an eye for trivia and a wry humour.

There are dazzling poetic passages and quiet wise ones. If I have a quarrel with the book, it has to do with Toturpuram the town. Though Badami has tried to give it body and roads, in many ways the town resembles a section of Madras before it became Chennai. And the fact that while everyone else speak idiomatic sentences, Nirmala alone occasionally lapses into what by now has become a tiresome representation of the Indian accent: 'simply- simply' 'big-big' etc.

The book's blurb will have you believe that in the Hero's Walk, Joanna Trollope meets Anita Desai, which is merely a reflection of the blurb writer's need to classify the book. Anita Rau Badami writes like herself and that is why the book is a little gem.

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