Sheba Jose’s debut work of fiction, Chamor, may at first remind you of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – and not just because of the cover. It is partly set in Kerala, and also opens with a description of the rainy season in the state. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes.
Set in two South Indian cities, one in Kerala and one in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the story is narrated by a woman named Simita, who is five when the novel opens and is in her forties by the time it ends. Between these two points, of course, she witnesses the world around her changing even as she goes through her own arc of growth.
Naturally, the way Simita looks at things as a child is quite different from her perceptions as an adult. But even if one is tempted to categorise this book as a bildungsroman, it is not a coming of age story alone as it is as much about the other characters as it is about the narrator.
In fact, the story focuses on two loveable characters, Chamor and Jency, both domestic workers, and presents their journeys with quotidian details of their struggles as well as an account of how they look at their own lives. It surprises us to see them more or less contented, without realising how they are being exploited by their respective employers in very discreet ways, which is why they bear no ill will towards them.
Later in this novel, a couple of murders take place, the aftermath of which is felt intensely by the narrator because someone very close to her is involved in them. These murders symbolise class and power-related violence, and show how violently those on the margins can react when pushed to the corner.
There are no explicit discussions on the politics of class or the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, but the author has brought out these issues subtly, weaving them discreetly into the prose. The lives of Chamor and Jency and the people they work for provide insights into the working of our unjust social order. Even a society that appears to have adopted egalitarianism is not fair to all its members. Things are comparatively better but not perfect, and the novel doesn’t flinch from acknowledging this.
Sheba Jose has written her first novel, but her prose shows a maturity that may be the consequence of her past career as a journalist. The narrative flows with momentum as well as a smooth effortlessness as it moves from one scene to the next. The characters have been handled meticulously – they are multi-layered and come alive on the pages. You begin to sympathise with the Chamor, with his own set of idiosyncrasies, very quickly, even as you root for the other characters too. And the sense of place in the two cities of Kerala and Tamil Nadu is deftly created.
Although there is much to admire in this book, the story could have had more pace, especially if the information furnished in parentheses are removed, for they are distracting. And the title, Chamor, neither drops hints about the themes of the book, nor is inventive enough to attract readers. As the famous American bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beech said: “I think [Ernest] Hemingway’s [book] titles should be awarded first prize in any contest. Each of them is a poem, and their mysterious power over readers contributes to Hemingway’s success. His titles have a life of their own, and they have enriched the American vocabulary.”
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.
Chamor, Sheba Jose, Vintage Books.