Synopsis

Four Steps from Paradise is that kind of book. Powerful, compelling, and evocative, it brings to life a richly imagined world, along with a wistful sense of a time forever gone. DAWN
Murari’s characters are unforgettable. They all live and grow before our eyes. NEW INDIAN EXPRESS
The cover of Timeri Murari’s Four Steps from Paradise is tantalising. Like the story, it has a deceptive charm: everything looks verdant and beautiful until you notice a hand creeping into the frame. Murari’s narrative has the same tranquil, sheet-glass quality, which is beset by slowly-creeping cracks that appear as the story progresses. TIME OUT
Enjoy the self-confident sweep of the story. ECONOMIST
AS THINGS FALL APART.

Some books grab your attention with splashy writing and stylistic showmanship: elaborate metaphors, convoluted structure, risqué humour. Other books work more slowly, piling on layers of event and character to build up the architecture of their story one thin increment at a time. The risks of this approach are obvious: a slower pace can easily break down into dullness or lethargy with the reader sighing mightily and murmuring, "Yeah, but why should I care?” When effective, though, the slow-and-stealthy technique can evoke a mood and time all its own; the story becomes, in the best sense, something to get lost in. Four Steps from Paradise is that kind of book. Powerful, compelling, and evocative, it brings to life a richly imagined world, along with a wistful sense of a time forever gone.
     Eight-year old Krishna narrates the events of his childhood, looking back from some later time. His nostalgia for the recently-independent India of his youth is palpable: the family of siblings, cousins, and cartloads of uncles, aunts and servants is a thriving, organic unit living on an enormous country estate. Krishna’s father Bharat is a civil servant and a widower, his wife having died four years earlier. He is also an Anglophile of the severest sort who sips Earl Grey tea, spurns Indian clothes, attended Oxford and played cricket for Somerset. Bharat has decided that his children — two girls and two boys, aged eight to 14 — need the guidance of a mother-figure. Moreover this mother-figure should be white and British Having made up his mind, he introduces Victoria Green to the family compound as the children’s governess. She creates a sensation: “She turned prettily once and the blue frock with the yellow flowers swirled, showing me her knees. They were round and whitish, like onions from Ooty." The extended family resist Victoria’s presence: it’s 1950 after all, and the British have just been thrown out of the country. Krishna’s confused loyalties — father on one side, family and country on the other — leave him torn.
     Tension ramps up when Bharat suddenly announces his marriage to Victoria. This
Union, along with an unexpected death, wrenches the clan apart and initiates an inevitable but nonetheless tragic decline. The biggest victims are the children, naturally. Krishna’s world has been radically changed: it would be easy enough to pin the blame on the white woman, but the book avoids such simplistic answers. Although “Britishers” are treated with scorn by many characters — and readers are surely meant to share this scorn — it’s not a simple case of “white is bad, desi is good.” We grow suspicious of Victoria’s motives in marrying Bharat, but we become equally sceptical of Bharat’s motivation in marrying Victoria. As the children grow older and we learn more about his business and financial miscalculations, scepticism is replaced with dread. Mishap follows disaster, leading inevitably — or so we feel, approaching the climax — to catastrophe.
     All this is told in a low-key style that favors plainness and simple imagery over elaborate language: “Their faces were worn by the sun but that they were Englishmen was portrayed by their distance, detachment and, finally, indifference.” Of the great house, Krishna tells us: “The staircase was a half spiral, a motor car’s width, which rose to a large circular hail. High above was a marble dome set in the walls below the dome were large windows with different coloured panes of glass which changed the mood and texture of the scene below as the sun moved across the sky.” The child Krishna does not recognise that he lives in a palace, but he doesn’t have to: his description allows us to understand more than he does himself.
     We never stray from Krishna’s point of view, so our vision of events is his. But our comprehension is greater. Victoria Green scolds him for knowing only tales of Moghul emperors, Hindu gods and Indian folk heroes like Tenali Rama, rather than “stories about Mowgli and Kim.” Krishna fails to understand what we do: that for this white woman, the stories of India that matter are not the stories that Indians tell about themselves — but rather, those that white people like Kipling tell about them.
     Sad to say, plenty of desis today would agree. But this fine novel is a reminder that sub-continental writers are perfectly adept at telling stories of their own. DAWN.
TREMORS IN PARADISE

Wading through a spate of music concerts that stick to a truncated formula and cater to audiences with short attention spans, you suddenly come upon a musician who dares to play out compositions to their glorious possibilities, who shuns the quick and dramatic in favour of the creative and leisurely. Timeri N. Murari elaborates the ragas of life in pretty much the same manner in his Four Steps From Paradise.

This is a family saga about the break-up of the House of Naidus. Set in a gentler, more laidback era, it tells the story of little Krishna and his family, living on acres of land in North Madras, pampered by wealth and a close-knit joint family structure. His father, a widower, brings in an Englishwoman to be the children’s governess and, later, their stepmother.

Three of the siblings learn to accept the change, though reluctantly at first, but the eldest sister Anjali rebels. The joint family is headed by Ranjit Naidu, a strong-willed patriarch whose business speculations go terribly wrong, paving the way for the break-up. When he dies, Krishna’s father and stepmother move away, taking the younger three children with them.

The slow decay of the composite family that’s now come unstuck, with various strands going their separate ways, is depicted in a long drawn out gentle symphony. The narrator Krishna takes in the hate and love, the joys and tragedies with the lyrical, unhurried glance of a sensitive observer, introducing us to his world when he’s only eight and bidding farewell in his 50s.

The metaphor thrown up by an Englishwoman walking into the fortress of an Indian family, with the help of one of its members, and then breaking it up is too obvious to be missed. It is a rueful reminder that begins three years after India’s independence. And here again, it is the existing cracks in the structure that succumb to the outside threat. There are already whispered dissensions and intrigues waiting to surface. Victoria Greene is merely the strong catalyst that facilitates the breach. ‘‘Such was our fragility,’’ says Krishna, ‘‘that a European woman had snapped her fingers and the whole edifice had crumbled.’’

Murari’s book reaches us a decade after it was first published in the UK. He is a placid storyteller, allowing events and characters to come alive on their own. We traverse the tapestry, amazed by the images and dramatic moments that rise in relief, feeling very much like a child shading one of those ‘‘magic’’ books and delighting in the pictures that so mysteriously appear.

There are stories within the story and many storytellers. The history of the land unfolds as we consume the family history. Both Ranjit Naidu and the children’s father are influential figures. We see Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam. Nehru hovers in the background. MS Subbulakshmi sings at a wedding reception. Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran act with one of the characters. Murari’s canvas is vast and glittering.

But the book is also quaint in an unsettling sort of way. Some of the spellings, for instance. Krishna asks his stepmother for ‘‘koimbu’’ and rice. ‘‘Peri Iyer’’ is probably ‘‘Peria Ayya’’. Jasmine is ‘‘mali puu’’. There are also explanations that stand out from the narrative. For instance, Krishna launches breathlessly and bravely into the story of the other Krishna for the benefit of his stepmother’s former husband, not stopping till he’s reached the Mahabharatha.

Every once in a while, you also find the writer going out of his way to educate the non-Indian reader. This works when it is part of the narrative, as in the passages explaining wedding rites. But when the characters are made to mouth these details, as in the night time conversation of Krishna’s co-passengers in the train or the cinema history provided by the actress, it distracts. Again, in a book so lovingly and painstakingly devoted to detail, it comes as a jolt to find Anjali seated in the prayer room, ‘‘the neck of the veena resting on her left shoulder, the main body below the stem on her lap’’. He obviously means the tanpura.

Murari’s characters are unforgettable. They all live and grow before our eyes. Nayana, Krishna’s father, very sensible and British, yet addicted to his dowser, and very upright, yet hiding terrible secrets, and his final pathetic return to his country. Victoria, self-willed and stubborn. Indira the actress, Bala the self-destructing zamindar, Ava the tragic matriarch — they are richly drawn tragic characters, capable of immortality. Forget minor characters, even the dead are brought alive by the gentle strokes of his magic brush. Even the house becomes a character, its majesty steadily eroded by human interference until the final scene when memories are picked up from the debris of Paradise.

Four Steps From Paradise is a long book in a new handy size, and worth every minute of the read, provided you give yourself the leisure to explore its exquisite territory along with the author. It is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a long time. NEW INDIAN EXPRESS.
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DIVIDED HOUSE
PICTURES in words”, is what comes to mind on reading Four Steps from Paradise. A refreshing change from most novels today that appear to cater to readers with short attention spans, here is finally some one who dares to explore the world of writing in all its glorious possibilities and shuns the quick and dramatic in favour of the creative and leisurely.
A story about the break-up of the Great House of the Naidus, it is set in a gentler, more laid-back era. Young Krishna and his family live in a “sprawling mansion on a vast estate hidden in the heart of Madras” with a motley group of doting siblings, cousins, uncles and aunties who also “squabble amiably” every now and then. But as in every story about paradise, the serpent lurks just beneath the idyllic existence.
The boy’s father decides to bring Victoria Greene an Englishwoman into the conservative Naidu household, first as a governess and then as a stepmother to the children. Three of the siblings learn to accept the change, though reluctantly at first, but the eldest sister, Anjali, rebels. The joint family is headed by Ranjit a strong-willed patriarch whose business speculations go terribly wrong, paving the way for the break-up. When he dies, Krishna’s father and stepmother move away, taking the younger three children with them.
The slow decay of the joint family that’s now broken apart, with various strands going their separate ways, is described with a gentleness that is strangely moving. The narrator, Krishna, takes in the love and hate, the joys and the tragedies with the unhurried perusal of a sensitive observer, taking us into his world when he’s only eight and keeping us there right up to his 50s.
One cannot miss the obvious metaphor thrown up by an Englishwoman walking into the fortress of an Indian family, with the help of one of its members, and then breaking it up, especially as the novel is set just three years after India’s Independence. Here as with India, it is the existing cracks in the structure that succumb to the outside threat. There are already dissensions and intrigues waiting to surface. Victoria Greene is merely the strong catalyst that facilitates the breach. “Such was our fragility,” says Krishna, “that a European woman had snapped her fingers and the whole edifice had crumbled.”
It is a story of betrayal. From beginning to end, the theme of paradise lost is handled movingly. Then, there are stories within the story. The history of the land unfolds as we observe the family history. Since both Ranjit Naidu and the children’s father are influential figures, we see Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam, Nehru and M. S. Subbulakshmi, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sivaji Ganesan and MG. Ramachandran, all as a part of Murari’s vast and glittering canvas.
The only jarring detail is when every once in awhile, we find the writer going out of his way to educate the non-Indian reader. It is still acceptable where it forms a part of the narrative, as in the passages explaining wedding rites, but when characters themselves supply these details, as in the conversation of Krishna’s co-passengers in the train or the cinema history provided by the actress, it distracts.
Murari’s characters are unforgettable. They all live and grow before our eyes. They are richly drawn tragic characters, capable of immortality. Under the magic strokes of his brush, the house itself becomes a character, its majesty steadily eroded by human interference until the final scene where only the debris of Paradise remains. THE TRIBUNE.
* * * *
The cover of Timeri Murari’s Four Steps from Paradise is tantalising. Like the story, it has a deceptive charm: everything looks verdant and beautiful until you notice a hand creeping into the frame. Murari’s narrative has the same tranquil, sheet-glass quality, which is beset by slowly-creeping cracks that appear as the story progresses. The narrator, little Krishna, lives with his large, affectionate family in their ancestral home. Life is idyllic in a way it can only be for a small, well-loved child. Then their father, a widower and an anglophile, grows fascinated by a white woman and employs her as a governess. Eventually he marries her, ripping the children out of the tapestry of the family, and leading them into a harsher world.
For the first half of the book, things seem restful, and even a trifle dull. But as young Krishna grows, the book becomes darker. Murari goes on to break every cliché that he has carefully built. The cruel step mother, for instance, remains calculating to the end, but you realise that the father—honest, upstanding and perhaps naïve — is not all that he appeared to be. Four Steps is a quietly compelling book. It takes notions and dialectics of power, caste, race, sexuality and gender, and stands them on their heads.
Murari is a painterly writer, and is at his best while houses, and attributing them with personality. Like the social order in Murari’s book, the old houses too have crumbled, taking with them their singular ways of living and loving. The first half of the book is its weak link. Though well written, it could have been edited some. But Murari’s prose is really riveting because of the fragile balance it strikes between “good” and ‘bad”, between love and covetousness. And perhaps because human nature never changes, this balance is a beautiful thing to behold. TIME OUT.
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Sitting in a row waiting for gongura pachadi and pappadams to be served onto your “silver moon-like” plates. Climbing mango trees by the day and gathering around in the verandah during the evening, as aunts or older cousins or even a silver haired grandma braided your hair, weaving in jasmine flowers, whether you liked them or not.

At least parts of it sounds like paradise doesn’t it? Even if it weren’t set in circa 1950, you would have witnessed most of these scenes in Timeri N. Murari’s book Four Steps From Paradise in any Andhra household in Chennai even during the mid 80s. It took that long for the colonial hang up to be shaken off, only to be replaced by a capitalistic jingoism brought in by the mall culture.

Perceived through the experiences of Krishna, the youngest son of the Naidu family, and Murari’s protagonist, the book is not pacy, but grips you because the life-like visions that Murari creates. The characters are well fleshed out, and you’ll always relate to one young kid in the family — the adults are too generation ex for the gap to be bridged.

Krishna is faced with the prospect of accepting a British stepmother, whose entrance into his life as a governess manages to unsettle the entire joint family.

And it’s not just one family that we see struggling to cut off its umbilical orthodoxy. We read about a city trying to drape itself in something other than a nine-yard Kancheevaram. MIDDAY