Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: The Fourth Passenger

The Fourth PassengerThe Fourth Passenger by Mini Nair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes, doing what is best for you is also best for society. In Mini Nair’s debut novel, “The Fourth Passenger,” Anusuya boards an overcrowded train in Mumbai. Deploring her alcoholic and unemployed husband, she works only to afford her daughter’s social escape through education. Her outlook is bleak: “There were times, though, when Anusuya did not dare to dream for her daughter. Perhaps they were all preordained to suffer.” But with burgeoning ambition and a genuine interest in serving others, four oppressed women take charge of their lives.

Anusuya will join her neighbor, Nootan, and her childhood friend, Farzana, in an entrepreneurial enterprise led by Shakuntala, a woman emboldened by her own husband’s desertion. Nair writes, “Although she was an industrious housewife and kept house very well, Shakuntala could not sit idle at home. She was a natural motivator and a born leader.” Their new food stall, Stree, would build community by serving Indian dishes such as egg bhurji to a hardworking public. Stree would eventually empower and employ many women, but not without trials and tragedy along the way.

As hopeful and hardworking as these four women are, blatant sexism derides their self-sufficiency when a madly possessive husband wants to publicly humiliate his “housewife.” Also, extortion and violence threaten the financial success of Stree when male gang members want to cash in on what they thought would be female vulnerability. But the unified leadership of Stree positions itself to persevere and inspire. The ambition, focus and strong work ethic of these women deeply offend and ultimately defeat some men. And yet, the soul of this book is not entirely in its gender complexity, but more so in its consuming conflict that threatens the stability of Mumbai.

While the four women manage to improve their personal lives, their public endeavors set them on a collision course with religious terrorism between Hindus and Muslims. A mosque, the Babri Masjid, is demolished, and the Bombay Riots of December, 1992 commence. What I find most endearing about Mini Nair’s work is her ability to create a succinct touchstone for reasoned inquiry and discussion. We do not dive into the full history of India, but we see how oppression and subjugation are perpetrated in the family and larger community. We wonder with the author how people can hate and kill each other because of their differing faiths. We observe that the city’s public is targeted like Stree; depraved dissidents carelessly abuse innocents. Nair writes, “The city was a place where people were more bothered by their own survival. To a man or a woman standing in Mumbai’s overcrowded local train, the religion of the person standing an inch away didn’t matter. They were both people eking out a living in a glorious yet unforgiving city.” The terror that can paralyze is not of the people but of madmen who must be confronted.

“The Fourth Passenger” is an accessible read offering plenty to discuss. Perhaps its best feature is its underlying call to social service through self-empowerment: “The four women had seen enough of fear in their lifetimes. They’d been battered and bruised, but every time they had emerged. They’d always been easily subjugated, but they did not submit this time. Stree was all about strength. Strength against oppression.”

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