Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: The Hottest Summer in Years
Author: Anuradha Kumar
Publisher: Yoda Press
The Hottest Summer in Years is just one of the two books published in quick succession by the author, Anuradha Kumar. The other A Sense of Time and Other Stories appeared a month before this one. Kumar has authored a number of books and writes for a number of journals. She has won the Commonwealth Award twice in 2004 and 2010 for her short stories. Earlier in 2021, in an interview, Kumar said that she lives and writes across continents and declared that she was “truly a borderless writer”. The Hottest Summer in Years (2021), is a testimony that upholds her declaration.
This novel opens with the protagonist, Hans Gerter, a perplexed young man caught in between dichotomies, in a world alternating between war and peace in the early 1960s, when India too as an independent country was young. The ‘Prologue’ sets the tone of the story. The protagonist is shown to be part of a German firm setting up the steel industry in a small town in the heart of India, a historical truth fictionalised with skill.
The first chapter starts with the puzzling murder of Ahmed Ali. It encompasses the formal and informal meetings of people, the ploy in the efforts to frame the Raja Sahib, the politics of governance and power play taking shape in a newly born India, the brewing Hindu-Muslim tension with a potential to ignite bigger flames in the future, and amidst all these Gerter’s attempt to protect the Raja’s family even as he whirls between his two worlds of the past and present. Gerter ruminates through the story and reflects on the heat in Africa of his childhood and the mirage-like images of all that happens after the night of the murder which holds the story together in what was supposedly one of the hottest years recorded in India, thus justifying the title of his novel.
Love, lust, and belonging criss-crosse across borders to amalgamate with the history and politics of the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Gerter’s own history is beautifully linked to the Nazi regime and the German holocaust that followed. Through Gerter’s journey from Germany to his displacement in Rourkela and then to Dharamsala, a narrative that spans continents, Kumar brings out the futility of the big wars and their effect on the mental health of people across generations.
Blending facts and fiction, mesmerising scenes of love, abandonment, and mystery make the book an imaginative and compassionate read. Kumar manages to creatively flit through history wherein she props on the landscape people, forests, forest dwellers, animals, Adivasis, seas, the voyage, the call of the wild at night, the train and the railways. Each character and even the vehicles the Blue Daimler, Gerter’s constant companion, the green Austin or the ship SS Giovanni are brilliantly placed to add to the wealth of the narrative. Gerter battles with the fear of the inner demons that breed from his past and present. His taking up the role of a protector in the process changed him. Memory, love, and freedom drive the story with history and mystery gelled in.
The cosmopolitanism in the story is starkly evident but subtly worked on. It is interesting to note the nature in which his ideas of home and identity sway with the impact of the places his destiny takes him. Gerter brings out the beauty in being the young edgy global citizen, who is everywhere and yet nowhere, as he describes himself as “always on the margins” and that “no place had been home” despite being in many homes far away from home. With a childhood spent in the west of Africa and, in his early youth having awakened to the truths of war and of his country, Germany in the early 1940s, Gerter sped on greater realisations of people he had met or been with, in different places in time. Despite the despair, madness and gloom, a letter and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) shines new hope in towards the end of Gerter’s narrative.
Kumar’s historical novel is a well-packed and well-paced story. It brings forth nightmares, conspiracies, insanity, secrets and fills them with love, hope and aspirations for a better world. The damages of war, the heartbreaks, the longing to mend the wrongs in life and history come together in Kumar’s fiction. In a blend of cultures and history, the story blends genres. Noir and mystery meet history in fiction. Indian writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, rightly described the novel as “… A noir-ish, brooding read, a book to be savoured delicately…”. Kumar, through Gerter in the novel, brings to light how we share different worlds, how multiple people seem to reside in one person and the varied lives we live. A beautiful cover illustration by Sanjhvi Noul rightly speaks to us on the climate of the book. Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years is definitely an all-season book.
Gracy Samjetsabam is a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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