This is a book review that has been long overdue. Jaishree Misra has been one author whose books I have read and enjoyed over the years. I was introduced to her writing when I read her debut novel, the bestseller Ancient Promises, way back in 2000 shortly after it was published. Since then I have kept track of her novels and read all of them – with the exception of the three books published under the Avon imprint.
I had the good opportunity to interact with Ms. Misra personally in 2015 when A Love Story for my Sister came out. It was during this interaction, she mentioned her struggles with a house she and her husband were getting built on the beach in Kerala. She seemed concerned and worried about how slowly things were moving and how difficult it was to get work done, in the face of rules, procedures and established societal mores. As I listened to her troubled tales, little was I to know then that those struggles would result in her first work of non-fiction, “A House for Mr. Misra.”
I must confess that I was hesitant to pick this book up, when I spotted it in the window of my favourite book store earlier this year. I wondered, how would a book, about the struggles of a person in constructing her dream beach house be? Depressing and whiny, perhaps, I thought. Did I really then wish to subject myself to that? Well, I put these concerns aside and did read the book in early February. And realised just how wrong I had been.
A House for Mr Misra is anything but that – a whiny, wailing book. Instead, it is an absolutely delightful read that recounts a couple’s real experience in building a house. The book starts off in London, with the author describing the circumstances that led to their decision to move back and construct a house in Kerala. Not before long, Mr. and Mrs Misra are in the thick of action dealing with nerve-wracking tense situations – mainly springing from their interactions with a wide range of people – unscrupulous builders/ contractors, corrupt government officials and regulatory authorities, terrible neighbours and other general irritants.
What is impressive is the humorous tone employed by the author to describe the harrowing situations the couple find themselves in. The subtle humour crops up in witty sentences when one least expects it. The use of humour and wit to describe what must have been an overall traumatic personal experience (besides dealing with these irritants, there are other life crises that they deal with such as the snake-bite episode and Mr. Misra’s hospitalisation) is admirable.
Visual description has always been one of the strengths of Ms. Misra’s writing. This comes across even in this book. The London borough in the beginning, the lovely Kerala monsoons, the busy Trivandrum roads with traffic and KSRTC buses, seaside dramas, bungling bureaucracy, greedy labourers, maids, why, even the creepy crawlies all come alive, making the reader feel that they are very much there with the couple.
Another thing that stands out is the empathy and kindness Ms. Misra shows towards her fellow human beings. While she points out the foibles of all the exasperating (types of) people she came across during this entire project, what strikes the reader is that she is not overtly critical about them and does not lash out despite all the hassles they faced. Instead, they are dealt with a subtle, sagacious humour. Now that is impressive indeed.
Life in the state of Kerala is clearly etched out and one gets an insight into the workings of an average Malayali mind. The book ends with the house having been built, yes, but with the Misras deciding to move back to London.
A House for Mr. Misra is a quick, engaging and an interesting book, peppered with realism and subtle humour – I read it in one go and throughly enjoyed it. A must read.
The book ends with an extremely kind gesture by the author. Ms. Misra is willing to offer the house up for any writer who wishes to go there to write and this is for no compensation at all. Interesting, really.
PS: Trivandrum has not been that much impacted in the recent devastating Kerala floods and the seaside house thankfully still stands!