Title: The Grammarian
Author: Annapurna Potluri
Release Date: January 21, 2014
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The year is 1911, and philologist Alexandre Lautens has just arrived in India to study the South Indian language of Telugu. He stays with a local family, the wealthy Adivis, and is introduced to their two daughters, Mohini and Anjali. Where Mohini, the younger, is breathtakingly beautiful, Anjali is plain and marred by a childhood battle with polio. Lautens will learn the delicacies of Indian culture while developing an interest in Anjali’s inquisitive mind and intelligence, while Anjali will find her voice and independence through Lautens’ stay.
A gorgeously written portrait of India at a time when the modern political rebellion against the British was taking form, The Grammarian juxtaposes a larger commentary of culture, politics, and values against the smaller tale of two individuals whose brief connection shatters lives.
Books about India tend to be very dark and dramatic. It’s a stratified society, with a large gap between the rich and poor, so it’s understandable that many of the stories that come out of the region are heartbreaking and difficult. But sometimes you want a cultural read that won’t leave you gasping for breath, that’s full of the smaller everyday tragedies rather than the harsher, earth-shattering ones. That’s where The Grammarian excels: it’s a quiet novel about two very different people whose brief encounter will change them both forever.
Annapurna Potluri shows us a different India in The Grammarian, one that hasn’t yet thrown off British imperialism, but one that is still recognizable. Wealthy Indians, such as the Adivis, are treated as second-class citizens in their own country by the British; but they take out their anger and shame on the lower classes, eager to show that they are better than someone. It’s such an interesting dynamic that plays out over the course of the novel. Potluri has a lot to say about Indian values and culture in this book. The notion of family honor and respect is paramount; violating this can have drastic consequences for everyone involved, with little room for forgiveness.
The Grammarian is a soft novel; the rough realities of Indian life are smoothed by Potluri’s beautiful prose. It feels like poetry when you’re reading. The first two thirds move seamlessly, while the last third is a bit choppier. At this point, Potluri starts jumping narrators and moving forward through time quickly; it serves to flesh out how the characters mature over the years, but it feels a bit jarring after the simple smoothness of the first part of the book. It’s effective, though, as she tells the story she needs to without making the book 500+ pages.
There is an extra element of India, beyond culture, that Potluri presents in The Grammarian through Lautens: language. Lautens is studying Telugu, and readers are treated to in-depth conversations about its construction and mechanics. While that may seem dull, Potluri does a great job balancing between introducing the reader to the language and delivering information while never boring them with too much. And that’s a great overall comment about the book: it’s in fine balance. There’s despair, yes, but never too much; Potluri speaks to the soul while never making the book too much to bear.