Brinda Charry’s The Hottest Day of the Year (2001) opens with the narrator, 11-year-old Nithya, finding Sudha hanging by the neck from the ceiling. Hottest Day then rewinds a few months to tell the story from the beginning. The book unfolds over six months of 1986 in Thiruninravur, near Chennai.
Nithya is from Bangalore; her parents have gone to Dubai for a while, leaving Nithya behind with her aunt and uncle. Janaki is a 30-something widow, living back home with her brother, bachelor Sundar. Living with them is 20-year-old Sudha. Sudha works as a servant, but is not treated as such: she is a Brahmin, like her hosts. While caste remains largely subsurface in Hottest Day, it is a real force; the social equality of Sudha and her hosts is key to interpreting events.
Mistress of the house, Janaki, is a living corpse. She does her duties quietly and well; she seldom speaks; she is never emotional; she keeps the house darkened; and, following norms for widows, seldom goes outside. Sundar is also taciturn: he bicycles to work, and back; at weekends he does the shopping. In contrast, Sudha is vivacious and curious. She’s working to support her family; she expects to be summoned home soon, to get married off. Sudha becomes Nithya’s only friend in this house of darkness and of oppressive, endless summer heat.
Events build slowly to their foreknown climax. Charry maintains the tension admirably, though arguably relaxing the pace a little too much in the book’s middle third. The 11-year-old narrator is handled ably. It’s tricky to use a child as narrator for the adult events that transpire – lust, love, sex, betrayal, and death. Nithya manages to tell the reader what he needs to know, and to suggest gaps in her own knowledge (and let the reader fill these in correctly) – all the while staying in character as a perceptive child. A child bored out of her mind, resenting being kept in the dark, and showing occasionally a lifelike viciousness in her attempts to probe the well-masked feelings of the adults around her.
Hottest Day is a novel about women oppressing each other via social norms, repressing themselves, and finally breaking free.
Years ago, when reading Jude The Obscure, I was struck by a fact that has, since me, struck me everywhere: it is often women who are women’s harshest repressors. Women act as instruments of enforcing norms; women judge remorselessly other women’s transgressions; women seem to embrace, two-handed, the golden chains that bind them. In Jude, it’s the landlady who embodies the worst of the social oppression facing the unmarried Jude and Sue. In Hottest Day, it’s Janaki who proves Sudha’s worst enemy.
Importantly, Sudha’s suicide, and subsequent events, catalyse Janaki’s self-liberation from institutional misogyny. Here, the symbolism of the characters’ names is important. Janaki I thought meant ‘firefly’ (‘Janaki’ sounds like the Bengali ‘jonaki.’) With her love of darkness, her silence, and her sleepless watchfulness, Janaki is in fact part firefly. But ‘Janaki,’ I learned later, means ‘Sita’ – appropriately enough, given that the character has martyred herself on the altar of patriarchy’s respectability. The other characters’ names are also symbolic: e.g. ‘Sudha’ means ‘living water.’ In life and in death, it’s Sudha who catalyses, in the people around her, change: showing us who they really are, and spurring them on to live life on their own terms.
This change is not magical. Though Janaki becomes Sudha’s persecutor, Janaki has from the first shown herself conflicted about her own conformity with norms. She defends her niece Nithya against the neighbours’ unsolicited advice on femininity. The façade of calm resignation with which Janaki plays the role of immured widow is disturbed early on, in a forced encounter with the shrewd old widow across the street. Janaki has always been conflicted. Sudha merely catalyses in Janaki a change that was long brewing.
Hottest Day is a sensitive portrait of a very particular place that seems stuck in time. The power of this novel lies in its illustrating that, even in this island of anachronism, change is already underway. Nithya arrives in Thiruninravur on the eve of adolescence, and is befriended by a neighbour similarly situated. Nithya arrives also on the eve of desire: desire navigating around norms, desire turning upside-down every life on this quiet street. To resist change, Charry seems to suggest, is foolish and impossible; to resist moving with the times is an injustice to oneself. And breaking free to live on own’s terms is possible even here. This is a message of adult, clear-eyed hope. Hope that acknowledges the profound repressive power of circumstances – but resists defeat by them.
With characters fully individuated, difficult situations explored with nuance and without judgment, and the social-physical landscape intensifying into its own character – this is literary fiction at its best.
Hottest Day is a book of spare, poetic beauty well worth savouring in nibbles over the course of a month.
Buy The Hottest Day of the Year here.