Jeanne Koré Salvato

he title of the novel The City of Good Death by Priyanka Champaneri already contains an interesting premise to think about:  some cities are better places than others for that universal wish we all hold, to die a good death with no regrets. This is our second novel in the series of seven debut novels considered by The Center for Fiction in NYC at the end of last year. Join us as we assess each of the seven in turn at the end of the next few months (next title No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood).

The story of The City of Good Death begins in Kashi, another name for Benares, the holy city on the Ganges where the sick and dying make pilgrimages to die.  Pramesh, the manager of a death hostel, is attentive to the needs of the dying and their families.  He is also attentive to his own family, Shobha and their daughter, Rani.  There is quite a world surrounding the death hostel:  the ghats, the police, the homeless, the boatmen, the merchants, the neighbors.  And we must also include the ghosts. 

Early in the story, a man is fished up out of the river who looks strikingly like Pramesh.  In fact, it is his cousin, Sagar, from whom he has been separated for many years.  Pramesh had left home, ostensibly to go to the university, leaving Sagar behind to tend to their family’s land.  This departure was not smooth, not one receiving the blessing of their mutual fathers, who are brothers. In fact, it was Sagar who was to leave and who at the last minute was replaced by Pramesh, unbeknownst to their fathers.  For Pramesh to discover the drowned Sagar with no explanation for his sudden presence in the city is a mystery that permeates the book.  The question of what happened when the switch of the boys was discovered is left for far too long in the telling of the tale.

It is an expansive book, touching on many Hindu cultural norms, from religious beliefs to food.  It also deals with the ways women can be ostracized and families devalued.  This large canvas can render the story-telling itself a bit slow, the one complaint I have seen registered against the book.  I must confess that when the ghost of Sagar haunts the death hostel, a most interesting development, the storyline seems to plateau.  Much pot rattling ensues and not enough else. Some people adore this kind of storytelling, akin to the slow food movement.  One friend has read the book twice, while another skipped about 20 chapters in frustration.

The promptings of the ghost cause Pramesh and his wife, Shobha, to journey back to the family land.  That journey, initiated by Shobha, evokes an earlier journey when the two were first married, when Shobha was not received by the uncles, so furious were they.  This journey catches us up on the life of Sagar and reunites the two families. 

A parallel story unfolds, in which the sister of a policeman died in strange circumstances, an apparent suicide, leaving his other sisters in a kind of Indian limbo, unable to marry.  What really happened that night his sister died?  An aging, grumpy neighbor is the key.  Why what she knows comes to light so many years after the fact is troubling to me, but it does create a momentum, albeit slightly artificial, for that story line.

Chosen as winner of the “2018 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing,” the judges write, “Priyanka Champaneri beautifully explores the sacred and the afterlife in this cinematic and emotionally gripping work about living and dying with dignity.”

For those of you not familiar with the epic scope of stories based in India, I can only recommend to you the movie Lagaan. In the movie, tribute (or lagaan) is demanded from a poor village, amounting to twice the yearly tax.  While waiting to see the raj to avoid this penalty tax, the villagers watch a cricket game.  One of the villagers remarks that this is a stupid game, a comment overheard by a powerful man who challenges the village to a game of cricket. If you win, no tax for the province for 3 years.  If you lose, which you will, 3 times the tax will be paid to the queen.

This movie, which lasts for 3 hours and change, has been the theme of French parties. A viewing party for grown-ups at my house in Versailles, accompanied by Indian food, was a lot of fun. Or the film can create a child’s spectacular afternoon, something which occurred at my house in Suresnes, just west of Paris. My daughter was so taken by the movie in the sixth grade that she got some language instruction in Urdu.  (It helps that one of her godmothers was born in Baroda).

If I may mix metaphors, let’s have Rosemary Clooney (yes, George’s aunt) sing, “Come on a My House, my house, we’re going to watch Lagaan.”  (Somehow, my daughter is not inclined to watch it again.  May I remind her, it’s never too late!  Let’s see if she reads this post.)

The following reamrks are eloquently articulated by a fan of The City of Good Death, who happens to be my lovely cousin. Here are six points she makes:

(1)    The thrust of the novel is in the last paragraph of the first chapter, “In the course of the telling, the truth expanded, broke into pieces, gilded itself, tripped in a puddle of filth, swabbed itself dry, and left fragments behind, until everyone in the old city knew at least some version of the story.” Each character suffers from this “course of telling the truth”. Gossip, speculation, secrets kept and told, lies allowed to go unchallenged, caused great pain and stumbling blocks in their lives and in their deaths. That this happens in Kashi, the Holy City where pilgrims and residents are guaranteed ” a good death”, shows how, even when what we want and need is free and placed directly before us, we often cannot find it.  As the first boatman said to his companion in chapter 1, “Don’t be blind to what is placed before you.” The theme is revisited in many characters and times.

(2)    Characters have an intense need to control the ” story” that gossips will attach to any event, knowing this will live longer and have more power over the family’s fortunes than any truth.

(3)    Opposed to this, the families and other characters are told to “detach” from the dead. When their grief sounded in heavy waves, the priests said, ” Your duty is to detach.” Sagar tells Pramesh, “Don’t look back.” This is VERY hard.

(4)   The nature of speculation, “They were so certain that, before long, what they believed became what they said. What they said became what they remembered, and what they remembered became the truth.” Family lore, anybody?

(5)    “Ghosts. What did they want? What made them linger?” “Are the actions of a ghost the same as the actions of a living person?  Are they weighed on the same scale of good and bad? Duty and sin?” “Was the yearning mapped in her human heart something she was permitted to keep as a wandering ghost?”  Is memory a ghost?

(6)  I want to see this as a five-part series on Masterpiece Theater. I loved this book. I don’t know much about how to construct a novel, but, as they say about art, I know what I like. The characters felt very real to me. The themes spoke to me very personally. I look forward to Priyanka Champaneri’s next work.

Many thanks my thoughtful cousin.

Do we imagine a city for a good death?  As far as I’ve gotten in my thinking, I plan to die in my sleep with all faculties intact at the age of 100.  Our friendly graduate students at Shmoop, who analyze literature (don’t ask me why they’re called Shmoop), have this to say about morality in Beckett’s play:

“None of the characters in Waiting for Godot shy away from the fact that death is inevitable. In fact, death becomes at times a solution for the inanity of daily life. The main characters contemplate suicide as though it were as harmless as a walk to the grocery store, probably because there’s nothing in their lives worth sticking around for anyway. They ultimately do not commit suicide because they claim not to have the means, but also because they are uncertain of the result of their attempt (it may work, it may fail). Because they can’t be sure of what their action will bring, they decide on no action at all.”  Shmoop

Some go as far as saying that Godot himself is another name for death.  Death in life.  Life in death.  Oh, brother!

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