Hema Sukumar’s debut novel Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments makes for a leisurely read during lazy, sweltering Indian summers. It’s like looking into the windows of your neighbours and piecing together a story as they go through the daily thrum of life.

The grand life

Grand Life Apartments in Chennai is an old-ish, modest apartment block surrounded by lush green gardens. Since we meet only four residents, I will assume that it is a three-storeyed apartment block. Going by the illustration on the front cover, the first floor is occupied by Kamala, a god-fearing, middle-aged dentist who spends her days anticipating the annual two-week visit of her daughter Lakshmi who is studying in the UK. The floor above her is home to Revathi, a 32-year-old engineer who is fast approaching the expiry date in the arranged marriage market. She’s perfectly happy to be on her own but unfortunately for her, her mother’s mission is to prevent her only daughter from turning into a spinster. On the top floor lives Jason, a British chef, who has impulsively moved to India following an unexpected and painful breakup.

The supporting cast comprises Mani, an affable elderly man who is the owner of the building; Salim, the errand boy who takes it upon himself to familiarise Jason with the ways of Chennai; Poons, the resident cat – whose attitude would make any cat proud of him; and Sundu, Kamala’s best friend and saviour who always comes to her rescue. Sukumar weaves together the lives of the residents in a way that each character holds their own and prevents any forced associations – and romances – with one another.

Kamala’s carefully built life spins out of control when Lakshmi comes out as a lesbian to her. The middle-aged mother laments missing out on seeing Lakshmi married and growing old with grandchildren playing in her lap. The two-week visit from the UK is marred by silence and avoiding each other. Unable to understand her daughter, Kamala embarks on a journey – literally and figuratively – to fully embrace Lakshmi for who she is.

Revathi is uninterested in hunting down the perfect man to marry – or as her mother advises, someone who is only 60 per cent perfect. Her friends have moved out to different cities or countries and some have young families. Loneliness is a constant companion but not one she would like to trade for a hasty marriage. A frank conversation with an arranged marriage prospect and standing up to her manager at work makes her sure of what she wants from life both professionally and personally.

Jason exhibits a ready eagerness to learn about a foreign culture – there’s no feigned superiority as he goes about the slow, chaotic Chennai living. He delights in idlis, dosas, mor kozhumbu, and zooming through the city riding pillion on Revathi’s scooty. After all, shifting continents is sometimes the only way to recover from a heartbreak.

All’s well that ends well

The book is an easy read. In some ways, it feels like travelling back in time – power cuts, the easy camaraderie between neighbours, going over for lunches and a chat. These things if not altogether disappeared, have become increasingly rare in our fast-paced urban lives. And yet, it’s not the perfect book. The first half takes its time to introduce the characters and their lives. All three residents receive equal attention from the author and I have no complaints about this. But the promised conflict with a construction company – or mafia? – that bullies the residents and threatens to tear down the building never really…arrives. And when it does, the conflict is not allowed to fully develop and is solved abruptly and quickly. It’s a blink-and-miss. I would have liked to read about how the looming threat of losing their home would affect each character and by extension, how construction companies are killing the ingenious architecture of Indian cities.

The story does not overstay its welcome and ends on a happy note. The friendship between Kamala and Suddu, the two middle-aged ladies was a treat to read. Every woman in the novel has her own identity and I enjoyed reading about the many different lives and perspectives of women across different age groups. The author does not condescend or force them into an awakening – they are progressive, feminist, and loving in ways that their lives and circumstances allow them to be. Sukumar’s portrayal of Chennai and its food and people is endearing – she clearly loves her city and makes you fall in love with it. Her keen eye and easy sense of humour make you cosy up to the characters in no time.

Breaking across identity barriers, Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments is a sweet ode to friends we find in people who are so very different from us. There’s a lot of heart in the stories which perhaps makes Grand Life Apartments so difficult to leave. Despite minor complaints – pun intended –, Minor Disturbances in Grand Life Apartments might just be the perfect book to pull you out of a reading slump or offer you a happy break from some serious, complicated reading.

Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments, Hema Sukumar, Coronet Books.