Genre: Contemporary fiction, humour
Set in small-town Kerala of the 1980s, Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is part coming-of-age story, part social satire and part comedy of errors. Geetha, elevenish, is off for the annual family vacation in Kerala and is looking forward to all the fun with her cousins – visits to the beach and trips to the market to buy glass bangles and kites and shuttlecocks, evenings in the veranda listening to her grandfather’s ridiculous ghost stories which he swears are all true, marathon card games and ferocious boys-versus-girls battles with the bristles of brooms made from coconut fibre…
But as the summer unfolds, Geetha finds herself spending more time instead at the back of the house with the free-spirited cook, the hypochondriac cleaner, the virile gardener, a cheeky helper girl… …And Babu, son of Koovait Kannan, the bumbling plumber who made good. Babu’s family is immersed, meanwhile, in the wedding preparations for Babu’s sister, who is marrying the most eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood: Constable Venu, an expert thrasher of suspects and son of that wealthy black-marketer of supplies, Ration Raaman. But Babu’s mind is otherwise occupied… with thoughts of a face as rounded as a Malgova mango, of an oiled plait as thick as the ropes used to tie the fishing boats, of eyes that sparkle like the sea on a sunlit morn…
As Geetha and Babu’s closely linked but widely divergent lives intersect, both are about to lose some of the blissful ignorance and innocence of childhood. Charmingly quirky and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth gently explores the themes of growing up, loss of innocence and the intimate yet aloof nature of upstairs-downstairs relationships.
My Review of Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth
I took my time to write my review of Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book. I have mixed feelings because I loved the writing style, the subtle humor, and the theme of 80s nostalgia but I could not wrap my head around the open ending.
Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth has two storylines that move parallel to each other in the beginning until they merge into one story.
- There’s Geetha, the teenager who visits her grandparents during the summer vacations and gets embroiled in a power play with her cousins.
- And then there’s Koovaith Kannan, the driver whose rags-to-riches story is the envy of his little village in Kerala–where Geetha’s grandparents live.
These lives of these very different characters intertwine in a way that shows how the relationship between master and servant evolves with time and circumstances.
In the beginning, it feels like you’ve been thrown amongst a whole bunch of characters. It takes a bit of time to get everyone straight. The author has helpfully supplied us with a family tree in the beginning, though (that I ignored because I was eager to start reading).
I don’t know Malayalam so terms like “ammayi,””ammooma,” “chukku vellam,” “eerkillu,” “kattan kaapi,” “neyappam,” “parippu,” and so on are new to me. There’s a glossary at the end but I did not refer to it. I like to deduce the meaning of the words from the context in which it is used. I also think that it is these words and expressions that give the story its distinct flavor. English translations would be a poor substitute.
The characters and incidents are described from Geetha’s point of view and it is this bit that I enjoyed the most. It brought back happy memories of my own summer vacations spent at my grandparent’s house.
Geetha’s analysis of her relatives and the dynamics between them is funny in a way only children’s thoughts can be. The author has done an excellent job of capturing events from the lens of a child’s eye. Geetha is left out of activities by her older cousins so she seeks companionship in the kitchen where the helpers of the house meet to carry out daily tasks.
At first, I could not understand why Koovaith Kannan’s story (a good-for-nothing boy who became a driver in Kuwait) was so elaborately described. His wife has an especially rancorous relationship with Devaki amma, Geetha’s grandmother. However, through Kannan’s life, we see how societal expectations push people to behave in a certain way.
Kannan’s children are also subject to scrutiny by relatives and neighbors, especially after he gets a well-paid job. Babu, Kannan’s son, who is smug in the belief that his father’s money will look after him has a life-altering realization after a dalliance with an older woman. Kannan’s daughter is conditioned to seek a “good” match as befitting her newly-acquired “elevated” status. The story of how her marriage is fixed and a dowry is agreed upon is a dispassionate look at one of the most deep-seated evils in India.
The author describes the failings and quirks of society without passing judgement and with a certain quiet humor that I greatly appreciated. She writes with such restraint and polish that it feels like I’m reading an opinion piece in a prestigious publication.
Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth ends on an unusual note. Geetha’s innocence is marred by an incident that affected me, too, because it was so different in tone to the story thus far. It felt like I had landed into a separate book.
I also want to say (without giving much away) that the lack of closure was jarring. Perhaps I have trouble processing abrupt endings.
And finally, you may ask – why “Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth?” The title refers to two characters in the book whose actions affect Geetha deeply and change her perspective on life.
Pick up this book for the sheer reading pleasure this off-beat story gives you. I believe people from Kerala will enjoy the story all the more for its familiarity and nostalgia.
(This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon Aug ’21.)