It is a relief to read a Canadian novel with South Asian characters who obsess about their weight, burn pizza in the microwave and worry about the bills. Given the Canadian publishing industry’s epic penchant for the desi minstrel show – all mangoes, saris, and nostalgia – Shashi Bhat’s unaffected debut novel, The Family Took Shape, heralds a welcome change.
Mira Acharya, Bhat’s protagonist, has a family fractured by, first, the death of her engineer father, and second, the challenges of living with her autistic older brother, Ravi. Her mother is loving but overwhelmed, and loads Mira with burdens too heavy for her years. An atom adrift, Mira slowly begins to recognize in the ostracized Ravi, with his “superhuman” gifts and luminous sweetness, a family bedrock.
Bhat seamlessly interweaves Canadian suburban life with Indian cultural life, moving from schoolyard to temple, shopping mall to community gathering, interspersing Hindu myth at critical moments with a deft touch. These aunties and uncles are universal, and everyone’s been to one of these parties: “that was Mira’s favourite kind of couple, the muscular with the dowdy, the frowning with the vivacious … standing together like variables to be multiplied, and they did multiply, cobbling little families who over the years would grow to look more and more like one another as the frumps picked up fashion advice from their daughters, the dour cheered up from the accomplishments of their sons, the bubbly personalities flattened and the brawny-bodied softened from allegiance to their nine-to-five jobs.”
The young novelist is able to fully evoke the conflicted emotion of a close relationship; Mira’s evolving dynamic with Ravi, whose oft-scolded head shakes “like the head of a sunflower,” is portrayed in especially tender terms. The structure of the novel is like the delightful meandering of a child homeward, with some chapters focusing on specific episodes, others accompanying Mira through an epoch. As we progress, we sense the family taking shape.
Beneath its writerly flourishes and abundant humour, this work is a critique of a controlling society that labels individuals “special” only to isolate them. But the book does not probe so much as underscore the societal failure to integrate Ravi – and, by inference, all elements of human identity not apparently “productive” – nor does it allow that there might be some compassion mixed in with the cruelty. Instead the narrative veers into convention: Mira’s marriage (to a suitable Indo-American boy); a baby; a trip to India with baby and hubby to connect with extended family. Bhat depicts Kerala as a Technicolor paradise.
Mira’s new life, small compromises notwithstanding, might well be the fantasy of a chick-lit heroine. There is an eternal nostalgia at play here, for an “original,” natural, healed world, and Bhat’s idyll is presented in as one-sided a manner as her critique. Though The Family Took Shape is moving and beautifully crafted, it could have profited from a deeper vision.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer living in Montreal.