Synopsis

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 HINDU.
     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 TIMES.
     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.

                                                  REVIEWED 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 along.
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. DAWN
FOR LOVE OF HISTORY.
THE SMALL HOUSE IS A NOVEL ABOUT ANGST AND THE FRAGILITY OF RELATIONSHIPS.
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”.
DIFFERENT WORLDS
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 [their] sexuality”.
     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.
OPEN-ENDED
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 screen hero!
     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 pay.
     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. SAHARA TIMES.
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 Tazneem.
     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, Maya.
     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 perseverance.
     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.

WEDDING WOES
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.