The Hope Factory

  • Lavanya Sankaran
  • Dial Press
  • 384 pp

This Indian “Upstairs Downstairs” parallels the lives of a Bangalore manufacturer and his maid as industrialism undermines tradition and family expectations.

The city of Bangalore, where author Lavanya Sankaran lives, is the setting for her debut novel The Hope Factory. On one level this is a story about class — a kind of Indian “Upstairs Downstairs.” On another, it’s the story of Bangalore’s thorny emergence as an international center for manufacturing.  But in spite of  the gravity of the subject matter, what makes this novel so enchanting is the lightness of its tone, combined with Sankaran’s wisdom and insight. Her evident affection for the people of Bangalore gives the book tremendous heart.

The two central characters here are Anand, a successful factory owner, and Kamala, one of his housemaids. Anand is looking to purchase land for a second factory, while Kamala must focus on providing for her adolescent son and keeping him out of mischief. Their lives intersect in one household, and although their rapport is secondary to the events of the novel, the arc of their stories have interesting parallels.

Both Anand’s relationship with his daughter and Kamala’s with her son are movingly depicted. The parents both struggle against tradition and family disapproval. Kamala’s visit from a brother weighs as heavily on her as does Anand’s visit from his father. Both feel the need to redeem themselves in the eyes of others. 

The pacing of the novel is at first slow, and although the plot develops some clever twists and turns, it is the characters that make the reading enjoyable. Like Dickens, the author draws her minor characters as carefully as her major ones, and her economy and humor in doing so are irresistible. Mr. Sankeleshwar, for example, is “a round, squat man remarkable only for his long sideburns, like a seventies movie actor, unmindful of the passage of time and beauty.” Vinayak is “gifted with potbelly, a penchant for prosperity, the cunning to market a stroll around his parents’ garden into a world odyssey, and a long, trunk-like nose perfect for poking into everyone else’s affairs.” 

But my favorite character has to be Anand’s father-in-law, Harry Chinappa, so aptly named for his British colonial standards. He meddles in Anand’s affairs with disastrous results and is always keen to press his values on his son-in-law. “A few years before,” Sankaran tells us, “the old buzzard took the freedom of speech offered by his fourth glass of whiskey to lean across the dining table one evening and say confidentially: ‘My dear fellow, of course you may have some, but – you won’t mind me saying this – one doesn’t quite pronounce the word in that way.  No table in it, you know.’ And when Anand had looked bewildered, his father- in-law had been happy to oblige: ‘It’s veg-t-bil,’ he said, with a kind smile. ‘Not vegie-table. Oh, and one other thing: it’s there, not they-are.’ And your daughter likes to play with Don-ild Duck, not Don-ald Duck.”’ 

But Anand exemplifies India of the 21st century, and his dreams for the future and his perspective on the British Empire are quite different from Harry Chinappa’s. The lesson Anand takes from their exchange about proper pronunciation is that he “would, in future, take to emphasizing, particularly, the table in vegetable. And why not? He had recently read an article about how English had become a true Indian language; that from being the language of the colonizers, it was now colonized in turn; Indianized.”

Sankaran uses her pitch-perfect ear for Indian English in dialog that conveys her characters as quaint, comic, wise and sometimes all three. She lets you know through a subtle turn of phrase that a threat underlies a particular exchange, as her characters navigate Bangalore society. 

Anand must struggle with unscrupulous business dealers, while his housemaid Kamala must help her son take advantage of the opportunities he’s given. At a social function held by Anand, where Kamala’s son has the chance to work, she gives him these words of instruction: “Keep yourself to the shadows. Do not show your face where it is not required. Stay in the kitchen with Shanta, or, if you so wish, engage in conversation with the tandoori-oven man. Do not think to thrust yourself into the glare of Anandsaar’s party.  Be not tempted by the snacks they will serve; I am sure our turn will come later — or so it is hoped. Step not on passing toes; speak respectfully to the catering company people, and, in general, keep yourself to the shadows.” 

Kamala and her son inhabit the servant world, and the book conveys an overall sense that this will never change. Squabbles between domestics, and the struggle to hold onto what little leverage or money they have, circumscribe their world. And yet Sankaran writes in a tone suggests that there is, in fact, hope.

At times The Hope Factory reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith writing about Mma Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. How I would love to see Sankaran’s fully realized world and cast of wonderful characters explored in a series! I’m sure they would continue to delight us with their charm and intelligent humor.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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