The book “Gods of Willow” by Amrish Kumar follows the journey of its protagonist Kabir Menon as India enters the 21st century.
Kabir Menon loves living in Hyderabad, has no idea what he wants to do with his life and believes that his fate is inexorably linked to the fortunes of the Indian cricket team. In the land of super-powered deities, the only ones that matter to him are gods made on the cricket pitch.
But when divisive forces unspool the peace in his multi-cultural community, Kabir unwittingly finds himself embroiled in the conflict. Forced to move to Mumbai, he navigates love, purpose and a sense of belonging amongst a colourful cast of characters. Set at the turn of the millennium when India was shifting gears, this sparkling debut is a story of many firsts – in equal parts charming and convincing.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The evening routine began once Prem Menon poured a drink. Children would be underfoot until calmed and then the family would listen to the news together. Prem believed in educating his children beyond the narrow confines of academia. So on most days, he would encourage a lively ‘debate’ on current affairs, literature, music or even the strange drawing little Sakshi had made (of an animal she insisted was a camel). These debates were short, lasting a few minutes; an attempt by an earnest father to inculcate reasoning and introspection. If there was any cricket on, the highlights were mandatory and on weekends they would watch a movie.
Of late, this tempo had changed. As the children grew older, they had people other than their parents to spend evenings with, so debate time became a rarity. Prem grumbled at this evaporating ritual and tried making the fewer debates more meaningful by infusing greater gravitas to the subject. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect from what Prem intended and the kids preferred avoiding them altogether.
Prem spent his formative years in post-colonial Calcutta where the brown folk replaced the English in their clubs and habits. Even though the Menon surname suggested intellectuals and links with the Kerala coast, Prem only knew of a couple of distant cousins in Madras, where he was born. Their family weren’t related to any of the famous Menons. Prem figured their clan had disbursed to be high-browed in other parts of the country. His own social circle included amateur dramatics, Hindustani classical music enthusiasts and an urbane, genteel crowd. He met his wife Radha, in a production of Taming of the Shrew. She remembered being charmed by a slim, distinguished-looking man with intelligent eyes and a classic, if not fashionable, style. They courted, fell in love and had both their children in those simpler times. His contemporaries joined large English companies and settled into a life of lunchtime meetings over gin and tonics. Following their path, he abandoned his ambitions in academia and its poor monetary prospects. His mercantile life began in a ‘managing agency’. As the name suggested, these companies managed the Indian interests of English multinationals left behind after independence. As a junior manager at Smith and Macaulay, Prem cut his teeth in their engineering and commodity trading subsidiaries, which were born in the river docks of Calcutta.
Due to a combination of mismanagement and the hostile policy environment in India, the administration of his venerated company slowly drove the enterprise into the ground. Other changes were afoot in the city – roast lamb lunches and cabaret were giving way to political rallies and populist governments. Prem ventured into a partnership with one of its suppliers. The next few years were spent in a brutal initiation of the License Raj. He built a reasonably successful business but the rise of the red communist wave in Bengal took on a militant complexion, and one fine day the union shut down their new plant.
Sickened with the hopelessness in Calcutta, Prem decided to leave this city of his youth, the city he loved. The enormous pressures of starting from scratch and maintaining his family hardened his easy-going attitude. On the advice of a friend he moved to Hyderabad and, over the years, built his own trading business. He now made a healthy living, albeit removed from the lofty ambitions he had harbored as a young academic.
The age-old story of fathers and sons was playing out in the Menon household.
Book recommendations for Kabir had changed from 150-page Wodehouse romps to 700-page historical drudgery. This was in line with other changes to do with Kabir. As he had grown older, Prem’s need to impart lessons and mould his son’s future had acquired a more urgent tone. The catalyst to this change in tone was undoubtedly the fact that Kabir had become an older teenager with no apparent interest in anything, except cricket. When he was at home, he resembled a pre-evolutionary slug draped on furniture but most of the time he was out doing god-knows-what.
Kabir was in awe of his father. His sense of upright decency was ingrained from an early age. He agreed almost entirely with most of what his father said, but when it came to his own development, he wished he could get a little more space. Kabir was nervous every time his father was around, fearing a rebuke was on its way. So he started to hide things in order for them not to become problematic to explain. It wasn’t like this before, at one time he would share the goings-on of his friends, his schoolwork – but now he feared Papa would find a flaw in everything.
Prem wished the boy would speak to him more often about what was going on so that he could comprehend it, maybe even be a part of it. Although a man of wisdom, Prem did not have the same tether on his own prejudices that he sought in others. He knew his manner was too hard at times and caught himself becoming more stubborn and taciturn as he grew older. This added tinder to the predictable tension between them.
Today was a relief from these tensions as the family sat huddled around a phone wishing Kabir’s grandfather in Calcutta on his eighty-fifth birthday. Kabir wanted to be the last in turn for he had a lot to talk to Dadu about. Once everyone had their say, the family peeled off and Kabir started speaking conspiratorially into the receiver. Sakshi grabbed the phone one last time to say bye, only to be shooed away.
Raj Menon was an easy-going, jovial man who loved to tease his grandchildren. As a young man, he cut a dashing figure as an accomplished sportsman – he played cricket for the top clubs alongside the white men. Not one to suffer fools easily, he carried a brawler’s reputation in his youth. Despite this, he had many friends and had become an establishment in Calcutta circles. Between the wars he spent a few years in the British India Air Force after which he ran a business in motor parts. The allied effort to hold off the Japanese created opportunities in North East India and Burma. After the war, their abandoned machinery became valuable. His adventurous spirit got the senior Mr. Menon involved in those regions where he found the stuff was available to knock down and trade.
Excerpted with permission from Gods of Willow, Amrish Kumar, Roli Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.