Book Review: Thirst by Shree Ghatage

The opening is unsettling.

A wounded man has lost his memory and is being nursed by a kind Samaritan and his mentally ill daughter in North Wales. A connection to India is established and the amnesiac is given an alias, Hari.

When Hari regains his memory, he recalls the picture-perfect fairy tale life he left behind. Hari is really Baba Chafékar, the youngest son of a wealthy Hindu family, who grew up on a lush Indian estate complete with servants, horses, tennis and badminton courts, and a swimming pool. After reluctantly agreeing to an arranged marriage with the beautiful and recently orphaned Navasanti, Baba falls passionately in love with her.

Prior to the marriage, Baba had already made the decision to study law in England. A worthy goal for many Anglophiles in British India, but not a practical one in the middle of World War II. Motivated by a desire to punish his father for an unforgiveable act, Baba ignores his father’s plea, “Don’t let my life affect your decisions,” while Christopher, his British friend, writes and suggests that Baba postpone his educational plans. His wife’s uncle advises: “If London is bombed again, or threatened in any way, or for any reason things don’t work out, don’t hesitate—just return home.”

As the departure date nears, Baba is torn by his love for Vasanti and hopes she will ask him to reconsider. But the orphan has matured and accepted her new husband’s decision. Her parting words would ring in Baba’s ears long after he left India: “I began to say goodbye the very day you told me you were leaving. That was also the day I began awaiting your return.”

After a difficult sea voyage, Baba arrives alone in a Blitz-besieged London. His spirits sag as he experiences the cold dampness, bombed out buildings, rationing of food, and a disappointing encounter with Christopher. Alone and friendless, Baba cannot satisfy his thirst and hunger. A vegetarian, he rejects the usual British fare of liver sausages, beef and lamb and has unappetizing meals consisting of soup, scrawny potatoes and dirty brown bread. Desperate to flee the inhospitable city, he embarks on a hiking excursion to the Scottish Highlands where he has an unfortunate accident and is rescued by Mr. Owens and his daughter, Catherine.

As his circumstances continue to spiral downward, Baba gradually releases the stubborn pride that has alienated him from his father and acknowledges that he has participated in a transgression similar to the one he once found so unforgiveable. Throughout the novel, Baba refers to an inscription written by his mother in her prayer book: “It is no use asking why the small stream is not the might Ganges, or why the sparrow does not fan its feathers like the peacock, or why the coconut palm does not provide shade as does the banyan tree. Each is what it is and so it is with humankind: all His creation, we are what we are.” Baba comes to terms with the new normal, the turbulent normal that has replaced his once charmed life.

While we are aware of Baba’s changing circumstances in England, we know little about Vasanti’s life during those two years. Some chapters are written from Vasanti’s point of view, but the majority of the book focuses on Baba. In the last chapter, we get a glimpse of her life, but it is too rushed. I wanted to read more about the anger and frustration she experienced when there were no letters from Baba. How was she treated after Baba left? Did she continue to enjoy the same privileges as her sisters-in-law? Did she reconnect with her own relatives or continue to depend only on her in-laws?

The title is an unusual one and, at first, I wondered about its suitability for a historical novel based in India and England. But after reading the entire novel, I realize that Thirst is really about the different forms of desire—physical and emotional—that abide within all of us and the tragic consequences that can occur when that thirst is not properly quenched. While Baba enjoys many privileges in India, he has a prolonged desert experience during his two-year stay in war torn England.

Canadian writer Shree Ghatage has created a compelling novel with a conflicted character, set against the backdrop of World War II. Born in Mumbai, Ghatage grew up in a society characterized by the rhythms of British India. In writing this novel, she drew upon those early memories and her own experiences as a new immigrant in Canada.

The ending is unexpected and I wonder what Shree Ghatage has in store for us next. Thirst is the second in a trilogy of books that are loosely connected, but can easily stand alone.


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