Its initial protagonist is Dr. Alexandre Lautens, a handsome professor at the Sorbonne, who has left his wife and children behind to study in India, a distant place with “as many languages as there were gods.” During his sabbatical, he plans to create the first written grammar of the Telugu language.
His host family in the coastal city of Waltair, the Adivis, is comprised of one man and four women: Shiva, an outwardly gracious and socially conscious Anglophile, plus his wife, mother, and two teenage daughters. Mohini is the beautiful younger girl, while Anjali, plain and crippled from polio, hides a sensitive heart behind a stoic mask, a defensive reaction to her father’s disappointment in her.
Their household is in a state of excitement preparing for Mohini’s forthcoming wedding, an event that Anjali, sadly, will never experience herself. During his stay, Alexandre takes an interest in Anjali, who enjoys literature and provides him with vocabulary for his project. Anjali finds him exotic and beautiful, while his feelings are more fatherly than romantic.
But when Alexandre's innocent act of kindness towards her – giving her a swimming lesson at the local beach – results in harsh gossip, embarrassment, and shame, Shiva makes a decision that has devastating and long-lasting repercussions for both his daughter and the foreign linguist.
A gorgeously composed yet solemn exploration of social values, prejudice, and the many forms of human expression, The Grammarian illustrates the purpose and power of language, as well as its constraints. The freedom that Anjali and Alexandre both feel, floating in the ocean, is a pure moment of happiness that, for them, transcends words:
The morning sun bounced its light off their skin, and the sea and sand; everything was bright with the evanescing promises morning brings, and her skin shone gold as his did in silver, the water crackling with sun… She thought for a moment of drowning so as to never have to live this life as before, because she now knew what it felt like to be awake.
Their return to the real world, however, is fraught with misunderstanding and distress.
In this time and place, some cultural barriers can't be bridged, something that Shiva’s elderly mother, Kanakadurga, knows well. She and Alexandre become close friends, sharing many delightful, edifying conversations that please them both. A magnificent character, she is a wise, forward-thinking realist about her tradition-bound society. Kanakadurga realizes that for Anjali, the granddaughter she adores, her only hope for a rich, full life lies elsewhere.
This novel is perfect for those who love languages and foreign cultures and seeing the complicated intersections between them. It demonstrates the author’s creative skill in bending language to her purpose. She crafts many turns of phrase that struck me with their beauty and rightness: England with its “riots of yellow leaves in autumn,” the streets of India “like a great mass of mottled humanity and beasts great and small, all converging in the light of a late afternoon upon some point in the horizon.”
Although I hadn’t been familiar with Telugu beforehand, the narrative would seem to reflect its melodic nature. With their multiple strings of phrases, Potluri’s lengthy, descriptive sentences create a punctuated rhythm that has an almost mesmerizing effect. In addition, just as the underlying meanings of words can be glimpsed through their etymologies, the characters are shaped by what happened in the past – particularly Shiva, an admirer of all things European in an era of increasing nationalist sentiment. The novel’s prologue, set in 1896, adds context to his later actions. In this way, The Grammarian can be read on multiple levels.
It’s a regrettable irony, in a novel about language, that the publisher didn’t take greater care with the text. With its numerous errors, typographical and otherwise, it reads like a manuscript that missed the copy editing stage. I read from the published hardcover, not an ARC.
Still, I hope this defect doesn’t discourage readers. In her account of a “mythic and strange land, located less in markers of longitude and latitude than in the psyche,” Potluri pinpoints why many of us read historical fiction – or fiction in general. It has the potential to put us into a mindset not our own, immersing us in a milieu we couldn’t otherwise visit – a goal she has accomplished superbly.
The Grammarian was published by Berkeley's Counterpoint Press in February ($24.00, hb, 272pp).