Review: Rain by Sriram Subramanian

 

Monsoon is my favorite season. The rains cleanse the dirt from the roads, but they also make traveling a nightmare. The hill stations in Maharashtra are lush and fragrant during monsoon, but that lushness can bring severe flooding. The rains bring a change in mood to the city. First, comes joy as the oppressive May heat dissipates, then comes depression as the dark and rainy days drag on into October.

I know monsoon is coming when I see workers on the road furiously filling potholes before the rains arrive. These men and women silently pray for a delayed monsoon so that they can finish their work—and get paid. Yet, in the countryside, farmers often pray the exact opposite.

Monsoon represents one of the many dialectics that govern Indian life. Either it’s raining or it isn’t. Either you have lush landscapes or barren dustbowls. Either the building project will finish on time, or it won’t. Either you will find success or come to ruin. Either you believe in science and reason or have faith in God.

Rarely, do these oppositional forces meet and reconcile. In India, the battle between reason and faith is ancient. In his debut novel, Rain, Sriram Subramanian offers a path toward reconciliation.

Rain is the story of Jai Dubey, a Pune-based architect. After an astrologer predicts Jai’s ruin, Jai sets out to prove the prediction wrong. The outcome of Jai’s attempt to control his fate leads him on a journey of faith—a journey that takes him through Pune’s seedy underbelly and into the Maharashtrian countryside.

The sunniest days of the book

Literary fiction in India has a reputation for long books. Books like A Suitable Boy and Cuckold spring to mind. But, for many readers, the length of these worthy books is off-putting. Publisher Readomania attempts to capitalize on this reader need for shorter fiction by offering literary fiction works with an average word count around 80 to 90 thousand words. Rain fits well into that house. The writing flows beautifully and is generally free from the Indianisms that plague Indian popular fiction. Subramanian uses detail exquisitely. Three newspapers left at the door reveal so much about the action and the character. The crafting is in Subramanian’s subtle turns of phrase.

The setting is well done. If you are a foreign reader of Rain, Subramanian serves you well. He doesn’t assume you’ve been to Pune. He includes little details that help create the book’s context.

It’s in his philosophical approach that Subramanian shines. For while on the surface the book is a story of a guy trying to prove an astrologer wrong, at its core, Rain is a complex study of the struggle we all face when we try to understand belief within the framework of a highly scientific culture. India is filled with engineers and scientists who by day rely on equations and proofs to do their jobs yet return home to pujas and festivals that often seem to deny the very foundation of scientific thought. Subramanian is speaking to those like himself who seek to make sense of both these worlds. When Subramanian finally reveals his philosophy, his writing is its most natural. It left me wanting more from him. I look forward to a deeper philosophical exploration in his next book.

The darkest days of the book

My biggest struggle with Rain was connecting to Jai. It took me 44 pages before I finally made an emotional connection to the character. I felt that the first chapter was contrived to elicit a certain response from the audience. I saw it as a setup, and I wasn’t falling for it. Because I didn’t connect to Jai as a human character yet, I struggled to get through the first three chapters. These chapters felt very mechanical, unnatural somehow. I could almost see Subramanian thinking, “OK, I am going to set up this problem so I can talk about reason and faith.” When the connection was finally made with the character, I was with Jai for the rest of the book. But, 44 pages is too long to wait. As I reached the halfway point, I could see Subramanian hitting his stride and relaxing into the language and the story.

As a book that takes on the reason/faith relationship, Rain needed more philosophy. At certain points, I could see Subramanian holding himself back. He reaches in and touches an idea but then abandons it. Perhaps he was afraid his reader might be bored with philosophical arguments. But Amish Tripathi has demonstrated that readers will buy books that contain a philosophical angle, as long as the story is well told. I was disappointed that Subramanian waited until the last chapter to give the reader his philosophical framework. While some reviewers have felt the ending was rushed, I didn’t. What those readers are sensing is that Subramanian didn’t give them enough time to process the wisdom of the guru’s sermon and show Jai implementing those ideas. That’s why the ending felt abrupt.

Although I enjoyed Subramanian’s eye for detail, occasionally, I did feel a bit overwhelmed by it. 

The verdict

Although I struggled through the first three chapters, Sriram Subramanian’s philosophy makes Rain a must-read.

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