A WARM, SPICY NOSTALGIA-CAKE STRAIGHT FROM CHENNAI—
Review of Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments by Hema Sukumar
Publisher: Coronet (2023)
(This is a spoiler-free review)
In Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments (MDAGLA), Hema Sukumar holds out a triumvirate of protagonists, all struggling with many guises of one problem that’s also the solution: love. Motherly love, a quest for love and an escape fuelled by failed love. It’s a slice of life story with love given the most bites. Her pen (keyboard?) has carved out one of the most real, empathetic characters of the year in commercial fiction.
Kamala, a single mother, is flabbergasted after her daughter Lakshmi, studying Computer Science in Oxford confides in her a truth. Excited for Lakshmi’s annual visit to Chennai, Kamala is left puzzled and stunned.
Revathi, an engineer in a corporate establishment, is stuck in a toxic workplace and nurses an apprehension of moving on to better prospects, her fears probably rooted in her failed relationship with Sebastian (a Christian from Kerala), who got cold feet at a looming inter-faith marriage and broke up with her. Succumbing to her mother’s pressure—who always ends all her emails with exclamation points—Revathi decides to meet Karthik, who’s come from US on a whirlwind matrimony visit.
Jason, a chef in The Tamarind Room, landed in Chennai from London after his girlfriend Emma broke up with him. ‘I think our relationship has run its course’, she told a stunned Jason who escaped to Chennai to heal and in hopes of moving on from his relationship of three years that he thought ‘was meant to last forever’.
Kamala, Revathy and Jason all live on different floors of Grand Life Apartments, the ground floor of which has been occupied by the good-natured home-owner Mani. This home to all three protagonists runs as a connective tissue between them. This world of Grand Life Apartments is also inhabited and visited by Salim (from the Diamond General Stores in the neighbourhood), Sundu (with a habit of using word ‘unbelievable’ to describe a wide variety of entirely believable topics), Mr Poons (a cat who looked as if it had tumbled around a mostly empty jar of apricot jam). And this cast of characters would languish unfinished if not for Chennai and the desi delicacies that feature as additional characters, running through the story like solid, sun-warmed rocks in a mountain stream.
The women that inhabit and visit the world of Grand Life Apartments may love to gossip and feed their guests with overly sweet guava juice served in steel tumblers and Mysore vadas, but make no mistake: they are also working professionals. They drive their own cars and ride their own two-wheelers. Hema Sukumar has injected them with a life-blood that only an author who knows her onions (pens? keyboard?) can achieve. In giving them professional lives, she doesn’t take away their individualities. Kamala is a dentist. Her friend Sundu had started studying law in her late thirties and now has a raging practice with a ‘retinue of assistants who fall over each other to do her bidding’.
Even though Kamala ‘didn’t believe in smiling unless it was absolutely necessary’, the interactions between her and Sundu bring a smile to your reading face. Sundu mistakes the GM diet for ‘General Motors’. They also are miffed about the gustatory potential of Avocados, which they try one by one with sugar and salt and reject both the options.
Jason is also a mirror to the love that Hema carries for Chennai. Through his character, we visit T-Nagar, Gemini flyover, Marina beach, Thousand lights mosque, Express Avenue shopping mall and a sudden case of wanderlust strikes. You wish you could visit these places too. In very few books you come across a sentiment that hails a desi town over London.
Cords of empathy snugly hold the narrative. Hema has put a lot of heart into her writing and it shows in her characters. As a child, I had a book with a picture of a house that didn’t have a ceiling. Watching it, I had a surreal experience of hovering just above the walls and looking down upon a house that wasn’t mine. This is what I felt reading this book. Close to the fictional shadows that live in this world of words.
For every small thing that exists in and around the Grand Life Apartments, Hema is a god. Nothing just exists. They all have traits. Rain is undecided whether to start pouring or not and leaves thoughtful circles on the floor. The lemon juice glasses sweat from their journey made from a refrigerator to the porch. The stray dogs are waiting near the teashops for the morning’s first act of kindness. Hema tries to breathe life into the inanimate, rendering them an intimate delicateness.
If books could be foods, MDAGLA would be what we call a ‘comfort munch’, meant to be read lying down on a couch, feet covered with your favourite duvet smoothened with age, nursing a warm cup of tea with biscuits to dunk in.