Timeri N. Murari’s
new novel, THE SMALL HOUSE, corporeal and aggressive,
exotic and fervent, is a journey into the past as well as a confrontation
with contemporary angst and its accompanying fragility of human
relationships. It is both tragic and entertaining. THE
THE SMALL HOUSE takes on big questions of love,
fidelity, history and betrayal. It describes sex plainly, almost
to the point of bluntness. Most of all, it creates a set of characters
with whom the reader becomes engaged, notwithstanding their weaknesses,
and introduces a series of events that readers will want to follow
to their conclusion. And that ultimately is the goal of any writer,
and any story. DAWN
As in all his novels, there are layers, subtexts and a lot of
historical facts mixed with fiction. His eye never misses details.
THE NEW SUNDAY EXPRESS.
To start with, the book threatens to take you on a sexual ride,
but through Roopmati’s character, history and sentiment, it runs
a parallel course, bringing out the latent and nostalgic historian
in the work of this racy writer. But once you start reading it
you are swept along on a tide to the last page. SAHARA
Murari has an eye for detail, for conversation and for character,
and his protagonists, including even peripheral ones like Roopmati’s
dissolute and drunk father are drawn true-to-life INDIA TODAY.
Murari is an excellent writer and this book showcases his skill
with grace and nuanced prose. DNA
Murari writes lucidly about contemporary angst with an easy, laconic
style, observing his cast of characters in Chennai, gently, from
a distance. INDIAN EXPRESS.
BY DAVID MAINE
Novelist Timeri N. Murari has displayed an impressive range over
his career, from historical epics like Taj to 2006’s multiple-generation
family drama Four Steps From Paradise; he has also written stage
plays and movies. His newest novel, The Small House, turns an
eye toward the personal and interpersonal crises of married, professional-class
Indians, with plenty of sex and scandal to keep things moving
On the face of it, the plot is simple enough. University lecturer
Roopmati suspects that her entrepreneur husband Khris has taken
a lover, just as Roopmati’s best friend, independent filmmaker
Tazneem, has learned that her husband Hari has his own, male lover.
But the author goes further, teasing out various implicit and
explicit differences between the two situations. Hari and Tazneem
married for love, while Roopmati’s was an arranged marriage pursued
by the father to save the family financially; Tazneem’s is an
interfaith marriage, while Roopmati’s is not; Tazneem still loves
Hari, while Roopmati never did. And so on: Taz is devastated by
Hari’s infidelity, but Roopmati doesn’t care about Khris’s; Hari’s
lover is an indolent movie star, while Khris’s lover is a cunning
social climber; Roopmati comes from a financially ruined family
of down-on-their-luck royalty, while Taz’s father oversees a successful
leather works empire. Khris has plenty of money, but Hari is in
deep financial crisis; Taz is close to her father, Roopmati’s
is dead. These various permutations of relationship and character
lend a schematic feel to the book, as if each layer of involvement
— emotionally, financially, professionally, religiously, parentally
— requires a contrasting pair of examples.
At times this formula threatens to become overwhelming. What prevents
that from happening are the stories-within-the-story: Roopmati’s
long-dead older brother, Taz’s career as a movie director, their
histories with the men they married. These storylines — and others
— develop through a series of flashbacks and vignettes, leaving
the reader inrigued as to how everything will turn out. Will Taz
get funding for her movie? Will she confront Hari’s lover? Will
Roopmati confront Khris’s? And what’s the meaning of this urgent
summons calling Roopmati back to her ancestral palace?
TAZ IS DEVASTATED BY HARI’S
INFIDELITY, BUT ROOPMATI DOESN’T CARE ABOUT KHRIS’S; HARI’S
LOVER IS AN INDOLENT MOVIE STAR, WHILE KHRIS’S LOVER IS A
CUNNING SOCIAL CLIMBER.
Murari can turn a phrase at times. The two friends are reluctant
to meet in a public place, lest they be overheard by gossips:
‘The words they spoke in the morning would return to them like
a soiled bank note, faded with overuse and barely recognisable,
by the cocktail hour.’ Yet moments later, characters are speaking
the most unlikely dialogues imaginable. One woman asks another:
‘At which gift had he begun his metabolic upheaval, a seismic
sexual shift, imperceptible to my eye?… For once I was dehydrated
of words. There was sand in the back of my throat and stones in
my heart.’ Such ornateness might be acceptable — just barely —
in narration; it’s a lot to ask a reader to believe that characters
can actually sit around saying such things to each other. At a
beauty parlour, no less. It’s an awful lot of disbelief to suspend.
Another jarring habit is the narrator’s inconsistent point of
view. Although there is no rule that says, ‘A chapter that begins
from Roopmati’s viewpoint must always stay there,’ it is something
that readers unconsciously expect. Chapters usually do have one
character that is the focus of the action; if there is a conversation
between two people, the reader might bounce between the two viewpoints.
But in this book, point of view often jumps into another character’s
head merely for a sentence or two. This is jarring in the extreme.
The reader is left wondering things like, ‘Why did the narrator
just tell me that the secretary’s mother is pressuring her to
get married, when we never, ever see the secretary again?’ It
is extraneous, distracting information. Perhaps it’s meant to
convey some sort of richness — to suggest that everyone has a
story to tell. But it’s not done consistently: there are plenty
of characters wandering by who don’t get a look in.
Despite these quirks, The Small House is an engaging book. It
takes on big questions of love, fidelity, history and betrayal.
It describes sex plainly, almost to the point of bluntness. Most
of all, it creates a set of characters with whom the reader becomes
engaged, notwithstanding their weaknesses, and introduces a series
of events that readers will want to follow to their conclusion.
And that ultimately is the goal of any writer, and any story.
FOR LOVE OF HISTORY.
THE SMALL HOUSE IS A NOVEL ABOUT ANGST AND THE FRAGILITY
Timeri N. Murari’s new novel, THE SMALL HOUSE,
corporeal and aggressive, exotic and fervent, is a journey into
the past as well as a confrontation with contemporary angst and
its accompanying fragility of human relationships. It is both
tragic and entertaining, giving a perspective that is sociologically
modem and historically a reassessment of the past and the way
it bears down on the sensitive who emotionally cannot ever separate
themselves from days gone by. Indeed, as Nietzsche maintained,
the idea of eternal return is mysterious and perplexing.
It is the story of two women, Roopmati and Tazneem; one who is
obsessed with saving her marriage, even though she suspects that
her husband Hari is a sexual deviant, and the other, who, on discovering
that her husband has a mistress tucked away in The Small House,
desperately endeavours to replace the mistress to experience the
passion on the other side of the monotony of a conjugal existence.
The burden of the past has always been taken by Roopmati Malhotra
as an affirmative source of energy and refuge, a retreat into
the “womb of history, into the silence of forgotten kings”. But
one fine day, she receives a strange message that sends her reeling
into an entirely different world of her childhood. She belongs
to the royal family of Krishnarangam which is one reason why she
is an ardent scholar of history, of ancient wars and kingdoms.
On the personal level, she is a deeply emotional woman who fondly
remembers her days with her brother who supposedly died early
on the high seas.
Roopmati’s sensibilities remain charged, especially in her dreams
where she waits for a lover. It is then that the elemental life
she desires comes in full force: ‘it had rained overnight, and
the strong smell of warm earth and water settling the restless
dust, replenished her confidence in life. Nowhere else did such
an intoxicating perfume exist and she breathed it in deeply, holding
it at as long as possible, thinking of other times,
before releasing that memory”.
To her, the world of romance and her past come across vividly
unconfused in contrast to her present chaos which she feels she
can handle only in a state of wakefulness. The world of dreams
thus means more to her than her present where she has accepted
even the daily separation from her husband when they retire to
separate bedrooms. She compares herself with the birds that seem
to agitate with the coming of the day, ‘resenting the sun’s rise
waking them from secure dreams”. And when Roopmati wakes up into
a world of sleaze she confronts men who get aroused by property
and profit and women who exude wiliness and are “serpentine in
Roopmati refuses to negotiate with the present, finally seeking
her husband Khris approval in living for a few days in the small
house of his mistress before returning to him. She reconciles
with him after he opens up his heart and for he first time reveals
his passionate love for her. It is she who has never tried to
give herself to him completely. The all-saving catharsis comes
in the end with the exorcising of her brother Tommy from her troubled
mind, who has turned a smuggler and a sexual adventurer. The vanished
brother whom she reports to the police for his criminal occupation
is spurned by her. It is Khris who stands up now as her defendant
when Tommy is provoked by Roopmati and reminded how he had once
scarred her everlastingly by calling her ‘pudge-wudge, all wobbly
body, bloody awkward” when she wanted to dance with him with her
clothes off when as little children. She will not allow him to
come anywhere near her royal inheritance.
Roopmati retires to the small house with her dog for a reprieve
from her present existence. Her past now has been tangibly intercepted
by Khris standing up for her. The open-endedness of the novel
is a pointer to Roopmati, alone in the small house, taking stock
other present life before she decides to come back to her husband.
With her brother expunged from her life, she seems more relaxed
at the end of the novel. But it is difficult to deny that ones
past has many devious ways of encroaching upon the present. Memories
have a strange way of coming back to us, a sad reminder that the
lost period will never return. THE HINDU.
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
PERHAPS the most disconcerting and yet the most entertaining aspect
of Timeri N Murari‘s latest novel is that it has everything of
everything pertaining to the social circles that comprise, or
aspire to compromise, high society It is so contemporary within
the nostalgic refrain that ties the main, or really one of the
two main characters to an elusive past that you can almost identify
them with slight deviations with the charmed inhabitants of Page3.
High business battles with glamour and aspiring ambitions, replete
with the fashionably abbreviated Khris — one can't say whether
Khris stands for Krishna or Christ - Malhotra, risen from the
soil to assiduously earned riches. He is therefore able to buy
the beautiful Roopmati by agreeing to pay off the debts of her
father, Nalangilli, the Raja of Krisharanga in one of the most
cynically drafted dialogues ever of an aspiring groom asking a
father for his daughter’s hand. Within that short interchange
between the future father-in-law and the groom Murari manages
to pin point through devastatingly casual dialogue, the status
of the woman down the centuries as a commodity for barter.
‘I don’t want dowry,’ Khris had said in a kindly tone.
‘Pity I do’, replies the king.
From there on it reads like an auction house.
‘Let’s talk money, numbers’ says the king. What’s the business
term, buyout, or is it a takeover?’
‘An acquisition, sir,’ replies Khris. ‘Say five million.’
‘The king’s answer is typical of the way contemporary issues are
brought in to intertwine with royal nostalgia.
“My dear boy I never deal in small change. No one does these days,
especially our politicians.”
The king finally agrees to seventeen million for his daughter’s
‘sale’. It is a brilliant piece of continuing dialogue which I’m
not so sure is not the most subtly scathing comment on the position
of women. The beauteous Roopmati is an intellectual historian
to boot, “immersed”, as her father says, “in history, her monographs,
thesis whatsoever. Nose glued to her computer screen or in a book”.
But that does not prevent this barter and the self-prevailing
tradition of a woman’s humiliating status as evinced in Roopmati’s
subsequent unquestioning acquiescence.
The king traces this tradition in his family to the Akbar era
when Surekha, the daughter of the then ruling King Krishnarangan
is sent off as a gift “to keep him moth- fled and, of course”,
he adds cynically, “increase our stature.” When Khris asks him
whether she was wife or concubine, royal pride reverts to is habitual
nose in the air.
“A wife, of course. She was a king’s daughter.”
Murari seems to have taken up the challenge of his own very apparent
concerns about female sensibility. The book centres around Roopmati,
the beauteous historian and Tazneem, the impetuous filmmaker.
Roopmati seeks solace from the past in which she identifies herself
with the legendary Roopmati, the commoner and beloved of Baz Bahadur
who prefers song and supremacy in the lone ramparts of Mandu to
the chilling and humiliating hierarchy within the splendours of
the King’s palace. The present-day Roopmati wonders if her position
is not actually inferior to the songstress beloved of Baz Bahadur
who opts for her individual supremacy even if it entails total
seclusion. Roopmati, the wife of Khris, the business magnate,
feels a captive till she replaces his mistress in the small house
which emerges as an abode and symbol of free choice.
There is on the other hand, Tazneem. She is the volatile, tempestuous,
exuberant, maker of films, very much in love with her husband
Hari in a Hindu-Muslim contract with no repercussions on family
or social environs, very much in tune with the sophistications
that mark their milieu. Typically the concerns that rise above
the communal ones in a society now riven by the other, more fundamental
drive towards ‘making it big’, Tasneem finds that her husband
has also found solace in the ‘other- ness’ of his identity. She
comes upon him one evening tripping down the stairs of their home
in female finery on his way out, replete, with her diamonds in
one ear. His boyfriend, she learns later, is no other than a famous
In fact, everything in this book is on the level of glamour, riches
and high drama. Hari even goes off to Tirupati to have his head
shaved in retribution, but gets even his darshan according to
the status of his perceived riches. In Tasneem’s case, however,
it is her father who comes to the help of his son-in-law to clear
him of his financial straits. That her love for her husband remains
despite his aberration brings them together again, though not
without her initial defiance. In dramatic Indo-Englishisms and
Anglo-Indian throwbacks, the language in this book spreads across
a multitudinous area of personal relationships, nostalgic historical
forays as well as drawing a cynical portrait of present-day corruption
in areas typically talked about in social circles. Inclusive in
this is an underlying nostalgic plea for the preservation of a
rich cultural past which demands a price nobody is willing to
To start with, the book threatens to take you on a sexual ride,
but through Roopmati’s character, history and sentiment, it runs
a parallel course, bringing out the latent and nostalgic historian
in the work of this racy writer. The language and smiles at times
are also redolent of an earlier Indo-Anglian age. But once you
start reading it you are swept along on a tide to the last page.
TWIST IN THE FAIRYTALE.
A poor princess married to a handsome millionaire, has a nice,
modern fairytale ring to it: how more power couple can you get?
But Roopmati, impoverished heiress to the lost kingdom of Krishnarangam,
is not happy. Bartered in marriage to the industrialist Khris
Malhotra, she retreats into a melancholy study of history, walking
the lonely rooms of the Malhotra’s Madras mansion by day, and
dreaming of her namesake, the beautiful Rupmati who was kept by
the emperor Baz Bahadur, by night. When she’s not silently signing
business papers for Malhotra, who has moulded his myriad businesses
around the Mati brand (“She’s my good luck charm,” he explains),
she writes papers on ancient Chola history, moons over her mysterious
missing brother Tommy, and hangs out occasionally with her filmmaker-friend
Yet action is all set to implode on this zombied and placidly
unhappy front. Tazneem and then Roopmati discover their husbands
are being unfaithful to them. Events unfold, Sidney Sheldon-like,
with much sex, scandal and intrigue. Tazneem’s handsome husband
Hari has a secret life, including a liaison with a gay filmstar,
and Malhotra stashes away an ambitious mistress in chinnahwheedu
or the small house. All rather page-3 but pleasantly so. Murari
has an eye for detail, for conversation and for character, and
his protagonists, including even peripheral ones like Roopmati’s
dissolute and drunk father are drawn true-to-life. As are some
episodes, like the cocktail party for Mr Schneider or Hari’s trip
to the temple at Tirupati.
And then there’s history. Murari has always had a nice sense of
it (his Taj a sumptuous story of the building of the Taj Mahal,
offers a racy ringside view of the construction). It’s this sense
of history that comes out tops again, setting up an intriguing
backdrop of the story of The Small House. Yes, indeed, this is
how the hangover of royal history may debilitate a family into
death debt and dissolution, and this how mere millions may not
buy it back. That said, Murari does try for a happy resolution
in an all-the-actors-come-together climax at chinnawheedu. Accept
your past the author-historian says, and only then can you move
on. INDIA TODAY.
BIG TALES IN A LITTLE HOUSE.
What is it about love that inspires such solemnity and profound
thought in the artist? The emotion has driven stakes through the
literary hearts of such forlorn - if passionate - lovers as Jude
Fawley, Goethe’s Werther, Catherine Earnshaw and Maggie Tulliver.
But in The Small House, Murari dons the armour of the ages to
protect his characters from the incessant blows of the emotion.
Indeed, this novel is about love and its devious legions, but
it is also about the human ability to deflect its blows through
pragmatism and, strangely, a dollop of delusion.
The Small House focuses in two couples. Roopmati the princess
(she hails from Indian royalty, distant, dead and financially
bereft) married to business tycoon Khris:
And Taz the film-star and her hapless husband Hari. The two couples
are drawn with strokes both brutally honest, and delicately beautiful,
Murari is an excellent writer and this book showcases his skill
with grace and nuanced prose. Roopmati’s serene grit is perfectly
juxtaposed with the cutthroat indifference of her husband. While
she delves into history with the determination of a woman using
the past to shield her from the inevitable, Khris travels the
world, making money and slipping into the comfort of his mistress,
Taz and Hari, however, have none of the single-mindedness of the
former couple. Taz makes artistic films, her husband sleeps with
other men: both cling to the illusion of normalcy with Spartan
In the affluent world of Chennai, want and social standing ensnare
- in their loving embrace - the lusts of those who look for contentment,
only to find ambivalence.
But it is when Tommy, Roopmati’s brother, presumed dead, resurfaces
as the bane of her family’s heritage that the penny drops: the
curtains are swept open and the glare of reality has to be faced.
Roopmati must come to terms with a loveless marriage and a haunting
infatuation. Khris must learn that possession is not nine tenths
of human law. Taz must begin to comprehend her husband’s bisexuality,
and Hari must understand that his lot has now been cast in grey,
rather than the ease of black and white.
The Small House is a very good read, and it is the craftsmanship
of Murari that should garner the most praise, but it is in its
accomplishment as a work of prose that it stumbles, ever so slightly.
And it stumbles over the one character that weaves the book’s
narrative structure with her deft fingers. In attempting to create
an ethereal being, Murari falters. He envisions Roopmati - the
goddess, the princess, the consummate woman - with clarity but
on the page her existence ceases to be possible: she is too composed,
too beautiful, too elegant.
She inspires lust and passions, and the reader may give it with
abandon. Yet there is a nagging doubt that Roopmati is but a dream,
one that we wish could be realised.
We could empathise with Jude, cry with Werther and berate the
frivolous Maggie. Unfortunately, with Roopmati, we can do nothing,
but watch and hope that the peaceable life site craves will be
hers. DNA, BOMBAY.
Modern marriage, Oscar Wilde once acknowledged wryly, thrives
on mutual deception. The business of life is still a complicated
affair. It is these fragile relationships, constantly threatened
by our whimsical choices, which form the basis of Timeri N. Murari’s
latest book The Small House. Murari writes lucidly about contemporary
angst with an easy, laconic style, observing his cast of characters
in Chennai, gently, from a distance.
There is the emotionally cold historian Roopmati Malhotra, from
a renowned royal family, who escapes reality by immersing herself
in a dreamy past, in the parallel life of her namesake in an ancient
kingdom. Her husband Khris, a shrewd, ruthless businessman, has
some uncomfortable secrets of his own. Then there are Tazneem,
distraught, because she has discovered her husband is homosexual;
and Hari, who has just entered a new, heady, homoerotic world
and is plagued with guilt about letting go of his straight camouflage.
Right between these fractured lives are an ambitious and beautiful
journalist, a debauched, wayward brother and family retainers.
The title, The Small House, refers to chinnawheedu, a Tamil term
for the home where men keep their mistresses. When Roopmati discovers
her husband has been cheating on her, she emerges from her stupor,
and reluctantly and cold-bloodedly, assesses her marriage. She
envies Tazneem her broken heart, uneasily aware that she feels
nothing at all, except maybe curiosity. The cast, part of the
city’s cocktail circuit, is torn between keeping up appearances
and living life the way they really want to within this insidious
circle. Eventually, when they throw their inhibitions aside, the
consequences are damaging.
Murari’s writing is occasionally flawed, yet sensitive. He draws
comparisons between a Chola bronze and feminine beauty with style,
and breezily refers to terrorism in the next sentence. He addresses
history with a flourish, like a sepia snapshot, and suddenly conjures
up delightful passages on times gone by. His prose is melancholic
and he’s always sympathetic to his characters but it’s unclear
what exactly ails them besides monotony. The trade-offs between
family, friendship and betrayal have been cursorily touched upon,
but not explained enough — like the baffling turn of events when
Roopmati leaves her mansion to experience life in the small house,
a bizarre attempt to rekindle passion in her loveless marriage.
The most interesting character, the homosexual Hari trapped in
marriage and riddled by debt, is the quintessential story of gays
in India and is way too typical; we’ve heard it a hundred times
before. Tazneem’s complete acceptance of her husband’s bisexuality
also doesn’t ring true. However, if you ignore these discrepancies
and the occasional sermonising tone, The Small House is mostly
a pacy read. There’s nothing pretentious about Murari’s writing,
he’s an accomplished storyteller, and an entertaining one.
The 66-year-old, low-key, almost reclusive author has focused
on a similar theme in a previous book, The Arrangements of Love:
the Chennai society where there are no secrets and everybody is
breathlessly waiting to be entertained by the next scandal. Parties
mean the small, insular circle of acquaintances, where words spoken
in the morning could haunt them the same evening. The climax of
The Small House, Roopmati’s ultimate betrayal and her coming to
terms with her self-depiction, is sudden and haphazard. But then,
what is fiction without a sensational twist? INDIAN EXPRESS.
SEX, SCANDAL AND MORE.
TIMERI MURARI’s THE SMALL HOUSE is the latest
of his Chennai-based novels. But it is not one of those niche
novels which can be read and enjoyed only by a hardcore South
Indian. It has a lot of Chennai in it, but also characters and
emotions which are universal.
A seriously poor princess Roopmati of the once famous Krishnarangam
royal family is married to handsome businessman Khris Malhotra.
She is an accomplished historian who has a detached non- romantic
relationship with her husband. Her friend, film-maker Tazneem,
is married to Hari a businessman on the decline. Unhappy Roopmati
who has many secrets and tragedies lurking in her past, and happy
Tazneem discovers their husbands are having affairs, Khris with
a woman and Hari with a man. They both have the famous Chinna
Wheedus (small houses) where they meet their lovers.
Roopmati dreams of her name sake, the beautiful Rupmati who was
kept by the emperor Baz Bahadur, every night. She has imaginary
conversations with her. The love of her life is her brother who
went missing by the sea years ago. Her feelings toward her husband’s
mistress is mere curiosity but Tazneem wants her husband back.
In the interplay of all these emotions, Murari covers many subjects
— the media, launching television channels, historical monuments,
heritage and a lot of sex and scandal. This is possibly the first
novel which reveals the page three life of Chennai! As in all
his novels, there are layers, subtexts and a lot of historical
facts mixed with fiction. His eye never misses details. The
New Sunday Express.