Tuesday, April 22, 2003

lacking an expected political bite

Tiger by the River, by Ravi Shankar Etteth. Doubleday. £12.99 ($20.45)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2003).

Fans of Ravi Shankar Etteth's biting political cartoons will be disappointed to find that the India Today satirist's first novel, Tiger by the River, contains no illustrations and little of the author's signature wit. Etteth, who is also deputy editor of India Today, has instead chosen to write a historical romance.

Tiger by the River tells the story of the parallel homecomings of long-lost cousins, both heirs to the title Raja of Panayur. When Swati Varma's pregnant wife dies in a traffic accident, he decides to scatter her ashes in the sacred Papanasini river. His journey home becomes a search for the past, as he recalls the history of his ancestors and the legendary tiger that protected them. At the same time, another heir to the now powerless throne of Panayur, Vel Kramer, discovers with the death of his surrogate grandfather that he must trace his lineage first to Berlin, where his biological grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, and then to his ancestral kingdom.

Both of these rather static stories often seem to be merely frames for the tales of the two rajas' progenitors, whose lives were packed with incident. Swati's desultory musings along the sacred river shift swiftly to the 16th century and the tale of a cruel king and his tortured queen. Vel's search for his past also works as a set-up for the story of his grandparents in Germany. Unfortunately, the complicated structure causes the book to meander along in fits and starts, interrupting itself just as it becomes interesting.

There are hints of something better to come from Etteth. The multiple stories and settings evince a fertile imagination, and he has a gift for dialogue. If he can marry his poetic impulse with the hard heart he shows in his work as a cartoonist, we could look forward to rich future work from him.