Then he’d look up at Amma and lick his lips like a wolf before a kill. “And what special treat have you brought us this time, Vasanthi?” he’d say. “No doubt about it, you’re the genius of the family, no?” Amma would sit on the ottoman with her head bowed, cleaning her nails with a hairpin, dreaming of her escape. Over the years she learned to concentrate on the world outside and hear her father’s cruel words like a chained dog in the rain.
A bitter, bitter-sweet book, this drew me in slowlyslowly, and engulfed me, leaving a sad taste in me that I’m not sure I’ll shake in a while.
At first I wasn’t sure, the story had possibilities, it was set somewhere I quite fancy travelling to, but while the dialogue seemed direct off the monsoon swept streets of Ipoh, the prose didn’t quite flow, it felt like Samarasan was trying too hard. Instead of flowing onto the page it was as if each sentence had to be creative, couldn’t sit on it’s own merit. Of course it could be me, and there were times when it worked. I continued on though, and was immensely rewarded, with a story that made me more emotional than any book has done in a while.
Where Samarasan has excelled is with the story’s construction, jumping back and forth in time, allowing glimpses into all the characters heads at various times, while never really leaving any doubt who the main characters are. Uncle Ballroom, one of the lesser featured but still significant characters is portrayed as a sponging vagabond by the family, yet when he appears, even through their relations with him, as well as the odd glimpse into his own head, a much better, deeper person is revealed, at odds with the family’s portrayal, and this for me is one of the books strengths.
The main characters are the family of Appa, an idealist, rebellious to his overbearing mother, who couldn’t reconcile what he thought he wanted with what he actually wanted, and when he does, it strains him to breaking point. Amma, his vacuous wife, drags herself up by her own sheer will and hatred of her mother in law to occupy a station in life she dreamed of but was little prepared for.
Out of the three children this ill matched couple bring into the world, it was Aasha who stole my heart, whose tarnished innocence is almost perfectly painted by Smarasan. While Uma withdraws from the games being played by her family that she has no interest in, and Suresh is the most boyish boy I have come across in a book, Aasha strives to recapture a happy family that never existed, and especially trying to understand and overcome Uma’s withdrawal from her and the family. Her relationship with Uma, with it’s unknown confidences and battles is the one of the most poignant I have ever read. Chapter 8 in particular is touching, the tension builds throughout the chapter and it is not the death which left me sad, it is Aasha’s failed attempt at reconnecting with her sister.
Upstairs, Uma hums “Mrs Robinson” and “The Boxer” and “The Sound of Silence” and goes on with her packing as if nothing happened, as if Aasha still doesn’t exist. Perhaps there’s no atoning for old sins after all. Perhaps it was already too late.
There are a few nods to the turmoil in Asia at the time, and the tensions between the Malays, Indians and Straits Chinese, as well as an oddball assortment of neighbours to the big house, but these merely enriched the story woven by Samarasan, allowing us to glimpse the main characters in a slightly different light each time.
Evening is the whole day made me think of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, but whilst the latter jarred me at the end into releasing the sadness it had sown in me, Evening is the Whole Day filled me with sadness like a slowly filling bath, as Aasha tried to understand more and fix more, without realising she understood less and couldn’t fix anything, and Samarasan’s tale will stay long in the mind after the last page is turned.
At ten-thirty Mat Din loads Uma’s suitcase into the cavernous boot of the Volvo, wondering at the fifteen stamp-shaped stickers of some gap-toothed, wing-eared white boy that emblazon it. He doesn’t know that Alfred E. Neuman is running (albeit unofficially) for president; he doesn’t know Aasha intended the stickers to help Uma recognize her suitcase in the New York airport pullulating with grey people in trench coats. And he doesn’t know, of course, that Uma accepted the stickers merely out of mercy and regret and a sudden, guilty nostalgia, not because she was worried she’d have trouble finding her suitcase.