Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth by Aruna Nambiar
So I picked up this book on a whim, have to admit the interesting looking cover obviously made me pick that up. A quick read of the backside blurb got me interested!
Set in a different time where Kapil Dev hadn't retired and Sridevi still ruled the roost in Bollywood? Sign me up quick, because hey, that sounds like my own summer vacations in Kerala. The holidays were always whimsically attractive, springing up strong sepia tinted nostalgic memories of childhood, the sights and smell that stayed with us for a life time, and will have us sighing and swooning even today. So Aruna Nambiar scores full points on that front - Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth her debut novel is a warm wonderful trip down the memory lane, bringing alive the typical sights and sounds of a laid back Kerala small town, filled with the quirky, highly relatable typical characters who represent the best and worst of humanity in such places. Her tone is affably warm, gathering us in a welcoming embrace, just like Sundarikutty's sloppy well intentioned kisses on the forehead. Aruna's language captivates and thrills, drawing out the bewitching imageries, one too many in brilliant technicolour detail. Picture this: A coy Kamala, who face is round as a Malgova mango, her oiled plaits of hair thick as fishing boat ropes and has eyes that spark like the sea on a sunlit morn. Or the smells and sights of the huge kitchen where the batter is being grounded using the "ammi-kallu" or the rice is being weeded through using those archaic straw trays. The descriptions are vivid, springing up to life effortlessly as you read them. The 'Tharavadu' or the ancestral house in Ambalakunnu is your typically large mansion with its many nook and crannies locked up or in disuse. There's even the room up in the attic, that is the 'Ghost Room' where no one is allowed.
The whole feel of the book is immersive like finding an old discarded shawl that used to be your favourite back in time and then you wrap that around yourself feeling nice, warm and fuzzy. This book took me back years, to my own Ammoomma's (Maternal Grandmother) house back in Mahe, Kerala where I had spent many a summer holiday with my cousins, exploring those huge grand-old chests filled with books (a treasure trove!), playing cricket or football on the sands, hide-and-seek or hours just contemplating the wings of a butterfly in the huge garden or just plain snoozing on the branches of the mango tree in the backyard.
If I had any issue, that would be with the story itself. While it is centred around the lives of Eleven-year old Geetha and the young-adult Babu infatuated with the servant girl Kamala in the Nair household, at times it did feel like I was reading disjointed 'travel-columns' on the lives and times of Malayali folks. The characters were twisted, some real fun to read about but it never seemed to gel together too well. Babu's narrative was a bit more exciting (wink!) because of the saucy Kamala's role in it [And what a fire crack that one!] A bit disappointed with the ending as well. Geetha's and Babu's bond was never presented in full except for in "tell" mode where the author goes to lengths about how Geetha learns cycling from Babu.
There are several fun moments in the book, interspersed with blithe descriptions of the history of the various characters. So Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth in total felt like an experiment for me. One that mostly ran positive results for me but that I suspect, is purely because of my own memories that helped me colour the narrative, make it fully three-dimensional, a living journal with a lot of heart, built of fond memories and cuddly, nostalgic happiness. I am not sure for an audience who haven't experienced summer holidays in their grandparents' ancestral 'tharavadu' how much did they feel immersed into the disjointed but wholly entertaining narrative.