By Timeri N Murari
Penguin Books

Wading through a spate of music concerts that stick to a truncated formula and cater to audiences with short attention spans, you suddenly come upon a musician who dares to play out compositions to their glorious possibilities, who shuns the quick and dramatic in favour of the creative and leisurely. Timeri N. Murari elaborates the ragas of life in pretty much the same manner in his Four Steps From Paradise.

This is a family saga about the breakup of the House of Naidus. Set in a gentler, more laidback era, it tells the story of little Krishna and his family, living on acres of land in North Madras, pampered by wealth and a close-knit joint family structure. His father, a widower, brings in an Englishwoman to be the children’s governess and, later, their stepmother.

Three of the siblings learn to accept the change, though reluctantly at first, but the eldest sister Anjali rebels. The joint family is headed by Ranjit Naidu, a strong-willed patriarch whose business speculations go terribly wrong, paving the way for the breakup. When he dies, Krishna’s father and stepmother move away, taking the younger three children with them.

The slow decay of the composite family that’s now come unstuck, with various strands going their separate ways, is depicted in a long drawn out gentle symphony. The narrator Krishna takes in the hate and love, the joys and tragedies with the lyrical, unhurried glance of a sensitive observer, introducing us to his world when he’s only eight and bidding farewell in his 50s.

The metaphor thrown up by an Englishwoman walking into the fortress of an Indian family, with the help of one of its members, and then breaking it up is too obvious to be missed. It is a rueful reminder that begins three years after India’s independence. And here again, it is the existing cracks in the structure that succumb to the outside threat. There are already whispered dissensions and intrigues waiting to surface. Victoria Greene is merely the strong catalyst that facilitates the breach. ‘‘Such was our fragility,’’ says Krishna, ‘‘that a European woman had snapped her fingers and the whole edifice had crumbled.’’

Murari’s book reaches us a decade after it was first published in the UK. He is a placid storyteller, allowing events and characters to come alive on their own. We traverse the tapestry, amazed by the images and dramatic moments that rise in relief, feeling very much like a child shading one of those ‘‘magic’’ books and delighting in the pictures that so mysteriously appear.

There are stories within the story and many storytellers. The history of the land unfolds as we consume the family history. Both Ranjit Naidu and the children’s father are influential figures. We see Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam. Nehru hovers in the background. MS Subbulakshmi sings at a wedding reception. Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran act with one of the characters. Murari’s canvas is vast and glittering.

But the book is also quaint in an unsettling sort of way. Some of the spellings, for instance. Krishna asks his stepmother for ‘‘koimbu’’ and rice. ‘‘Peri Iyer’’ is probably ‘‘Peria Ayya’’. Jasmine is ‘‘mali puu’’. There are also explanations that stand out from the narrative. For instance, Krishna launches breathlessly and bravely into the story of the other Krishna for the benefit of his stepmother’s former husband, not stopping till he’s reached the Mahabharatha.

Every once in a while, you also find the writer going out of his way to educate the non-Indian reader. This works when it is part of the narrative, as in the passages explaining wedding rites. But when the characters are made to mouth these details, as in the nighttime conversation of Krishna’s co-passengers in the train or the cinema history provided by the actress, it distracts. Again, in a book so lovingly and painstakingly devoted to detail, it comes as a jolt to find Anjali seated in the prayer room, ‘‘the neck of the veena resting on her left shoulder, the main body below the stem on her lap’’. He obviously means the tanpura.

Murari’s characters are unforgettable. They all live and grow before our eyes. Nayana, Krishna’s father, very sensible and British, yet addicted to his dowser, and very upright, yet hiding terrible secrets, and his final pathetic return to his country. Victoria, self-willed and stubborn. Indira the actress, Bala the self-destructing zamindar, Ava the tragic matriarch — they are richly drawn tragic characters, capable of immortality. Forget minor characters, even the dead are brought alive by the gentle strokes of his magic brush. Even the house becomes a character, its majesty steadily eroded by human interference until the final scene when memories are picked up from the debris of Paradise.

Four Steps From Paradise is a long book in a new handy size, and worth every minute of the read, provided you give yourself the leisure to explore its exquisite territory along with the author. It is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a long time.
The New Indian Express Sunday Magazine
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