The Scent of Pepper by Kavery Nambisan
Published by: Penguin Random House India
Deep in Kodagu in South India, nervous, seventeen year old Nanji is married into the mighty Kaleyanda family, presided over by the Rao Bahadur, at a time when the British have just annexed this remote province. The kindness of her husband Baliyana, a talented veterinary surgeon eases her entry into a new home even as the British rulers settle into a life fit for royalty amongst coffee and pepper plantations. As Nanji braves her way through thirteen pregnancies, her husband’s obsession with the wife of British planter and the birth of a lame son, Subbu, she remains resolute and indispensable to her husband and home.
Soon however, troubles beset the family: the British rulers are no longer benevolent; one of Baliyanna’s brothers marries a woman with British blood and the Rao Bahadur falls into acute depression, a disease endemic to the area. To make matters worse, Subbu takes to politics, begins to wear coarse Khadi and show his contempt for alcohol, the favoured beverage of the Kodava.
Kavery Nambisan’s The Scent of Pepper is written with a vivid imagery that takes you right to the roots and soil and the soul of Kodagu and its people. Though the main narrative focuses mainly on life experiences of Nanji, the characters, back stories and mention of her relatives and the people around her all contribute to bringing to us the cultural and political history of Kodagu (now present day Coorg) from pre independent India, its connection with British settlers and administration, the reach of the freedom movement and then the post Independent stupor. The descriptions of the bustle in the well to do Kaleyanda family, the intricacies of managing plantation crops and produce serve to acquaint us with the backbone of life in Kodagu.
I loved the portrayal of the women in The Scent of Pepper. Nanji who is a widow gets remarried and accepted to the household of the Rai Bahadur but faces no social censure. Her resoluteness and strength eventually takes her to head the household. Nanji’s mother in law Chambavva is regal and a woman of her own mind who decides to go and live in a widow’s home on her own after her husband commits suicide. The ties between Nanji and Chambavva is one without friction but the same cannot be said when it comes Nanji and her daughter in law Mallige for Nanji sees her as delicate. While Chambavva and Nanji are the traditional female characters who are the ones to accept the situation they find themselves in, Mallige as an educated woman becomes the first to follow her husband and venture out of the life in Kodagu. And though we do not get to have closer look at the character of Neelu, who represents the 4th generation of the Kaleyanda family, the mention of her nature and her return to the village towards the end of the book gives one the message of continuity and hopeful future.
Kavery Nambisan’s writing is poetic at times but also matter of fact when it serves the narrative. The spectre of people falling prone to depression and death by suicide is a firmament that stays throughout the book with various characters either contemplating or succumbing to it. The main characters are well etched and have interesting trajectories with their deep love for their old world, their wariness of the new and ultimately, coping with the changes that time brings.
My only complaint with the writing is the use of Kannada words liberally without any footnotes or a glossary of meanings which would have added pleasure to my reading. I feel in love with Kavery Nambisan’s writing earlier this year and this book only adds to that love. I would recommend this for people who are keen to read good Indian writing.