A package of small glories: ‘The prayer room’ by Shanthi Sekaran

In the opening pages of The Prayer Room, George and Viji Armitage are flying to England after their impulsive wedding in Madras. The stoic, callous Brit and the free-thinking, resilient Indian do not exactly seem to be a match out of Bollywood, and they know it. Sent through separate lines at customs, Viji looks for her husband at the baggage claim, feeling herself "lost in a sea of British people … hair that was brown and lighter brown and lightest brown. They all looked like George. Which one had she married?" And even while comforting his wife after a humiliating exchange with her father-in-law, George thinks, "He didn't love her, of course, no more than he would have if they were still in Madras, meeting in the evenings and parting wordlessly each night."

At the beginning and throughout the book, Shanthi Sekaran (this is her first novel) demonstrates the conflicts possible in a cross-cultural marriage – perhaps too plainly. On the one hand, we have seen a dazed Indian bride before; on the other, Viji's past makes her more than a mere stock character. Still, it is difficult to imagine readers who could align their sympathies more with George than with Viji. Even after the shock of marriage wears off, her obligations to an aging father-in-law and, later, a demanding set of triplets drain her. Portraying Viji as a victim tests the reader's patience and the story's momentum. A robust, if ambling, plot, and Sekaran's clear gift for strings of insightful, potent detail, ultimately serve to explain what exactly is the nature of the crime.

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Himal Southasian