Mahesh Rao has a fascinating and unique approach to narrative. Although “The Smoke is Rising” closely follows several central characters who inhabit the city of Mysore and develop over the course of the novel, the primary character is Mysore itself. This is an Indian city that is in a state of flux where advancement is marked by achievements such as the launch of a lunar probe or the construction of HeritageLand, a theme park dreamed up by an eccentric visionary to be “a world where cutting-edge technology could harness the drama of the ancient epics and transport his compatriots to an alternate reality.” At the same time as the city's elite toast progress, other citizens are being left behind with their lives seeing no improvement from the apparent leaps in prosperity or hindered as is the case of the farmers displaced by developments. Protests form and rioting ensues. Rao's novel circulates amongst Mysore's major institutions such as law courts and libraries as well as points where citizens meet and gossip like coffee houses and sari shops. All the while the author touches upon the lives and perspectives of a number of minor characters who inhabit these spaces as well as the central characters. The cumulative effect of this is to produce a complex portrait of a specific place and makes the reader feel as if they've really experienced Mysore itself.
Of the individual characters that the novel focuses there is Uma, a reserved servant who is the victim of pernicious gossip and whose home is flooded by a monsoon. There is Mala and her husband Girish who at first appeared to be an excellent match, but whose anger and frustration has a dangerous edge. Rao presents a heart-rending picture of domestic abuse where Mala finds that “Living a secret life made innumerable claims. Every day she had to guard against the erosion of her will with a heightened watchfulness, induced at great cost and leaving her winded.” The fear and shame caused from consistent abuse impedes her spirit. On instances where Girish lashes out against his wife: “he viewed them as the unfortunate adjuncts of his zeal, the collateral damage precipitated in trying to bring equilibrium to their relationship.” Although Girish attempts to make his behaviour appear justified and normal, Mala is always aware that it is not and she has quietly been planning a way to escape. Taking into account the psychological gameplay and social pressures at work, the author presents a layered understanding of this difficult subject.
The character I was most drawn to was the widow Susheela. Finding herself alone now that her husband has died and her children have left, she lives (what she considers) a fairly modest existence, but finds she's often lonely. “The intensely irritating thing about being a widow, apart from all the other intensely irritating things, was that she had been rendered void by most of their social set.” Thus isolated, she thinks to dabble with online dating but finds the process repugnant. But gradually she strikes up a companionship with a man named Jaydev who also has an intense sense of solitude formulated out of years of being a widower. This is portrayed through a visit to a new hairdresser who offers him a head massage which makes him burst into tears because this kind of human contact isn't something he's experienced for ten years. Their relationship builds to a beautiful point where “The silences between them were now rich with contentment, the pleasure that could by gained only through an intimate civility.” Yet the natural progression and tenderness of this budding companionship has difficulty in being truly realized when it clashes against the characters' old fashioned morals and sense of social acceptability.
“The Smoke is Rising” is a richly rewarding novel full of descriptive sensory delights, textured drama and wry humour about the human condition. Though some readers may find it jarring being shuttled around a near cacophony of points of view, I was glad to give into the experience because I felt that the many locations, voices and characters were building the overall character of Mysore. It's impressive that a novel can be so thoroughly rooted in its environment and can come across as so fascinatingly idiosyncratic, yet it feels like a familiar home to a reader who has never actually visited it. It's an impressive debut novel that marks Mahesh Rao as a truly distinctive and talented writer.