Sunday, September 21, 2014


Title: Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth
Author: Aruna Nambiar
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 233

To read Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is to hustle down memory lane. Even though my childhood summer vacations were played out in a Goan village, and not a village in Kerala, there was still so much that I could relate to. Everything felt pleasantly familiar.

Reading the book was to taste and re-live the flavours of a much-cherished experience. The ‘soul-sapping afternoons,’ the ‘bumper crop of mangoes,’ and raucous playtimes with cousins were the stuff of my childhood summers too.

Geetha, her older siblings Mini and Raju, and their parents head to Ambalakunnu for the children’s annual summer vacation. There the children meet cousins Vikki and Divya from Delhi and the entire family and bask in the solid affection of their grandparents Ammoomma and Appooppan, known to the world as Devaki and Madhavan Nair.

Kakoos (latrine) Kannan is a plumber whose skills are limited to de-clogging toilet fittings. His wife, Sundarikutty, is a cook in the Nair household. Through Madhavan Nair, Kannan gets a job as a chauffeur in Kuwait, and the family’s fortunes improve fantastically. Kannan begins to be known as Koovait Kannan.

Ration Raaman is so known because he is the unscrupulous owner of a ration shop. His youngest son, Venu joins the police force, thereby improving his stock further.

When the story begins, the three families’ lives overlap. Venu’s marriage is fixed with Bindu, daughter of Kannan. The conversations around the alliance remind us of reality when the bride’s family’s ego gets a beating and the groom’s family flies high.

Even though Ambalakunnu is the kind of place where nothing ever changes, 11-year-old Geetha finds that the older Mini and Divya do not want to spend time with her. Lonely, she becomes closely acquainted with Kamala, the cook, and the other members of the household staff. Babu, the 15-year-old son of Kannan, smitten with Kamala’s charms, joins the group.

It is a happy time for the Raaman and Kannan families as they get ready for the wedding. Geetha herself believes that this will be a summer vacation unlike any other. But before the summer is gone, the situation will be unraveled for everyone.

The book brought to life the colourful summer holidays, complete with the joy of interacting with our cousins. The games, the telling of ghost stories, spirited boys-versus-girls fights between the cousins, card games (how I loved Donkey). There were so many things that were brought to life.

The imagery in the book deserves special attention. In one place, the author talks about a character’s heart which flutters like a flag at the Independence Day parade. 

The same character, in the throes of love, breathes noisily like an “octogenarian with a cold.” 

I particularly enjoyed “Mutton as tender as a heartbroken adolescent.” 

Another character’s eyes “darted hither and thither, in an uncanny likeness of a Kathakali dancer in the throes of a performance.” 

When Bindu’s prospective marriages fail to materialize, she creeps around the house “like a cockroach just sprayed with FINIT.” 

There are so many of these gems scattered throughout the book. Each one is steeped in the earthy reality of the land. You have to read the book to discover them firsthand.

There are many moments when you can’t help but laugh aloud, particularly when Ration Raaman’s family comes to see the prospective bride, Bindu.

There are so many little details that the author inserts into the descriptions, that give us a deep understanding of this time in the early '80s and add more than a touch of authenticity. A time when Sridevi ruled the box office and Kapil Devi had yet to retire. A time of obsession with chit funds. A time when we made full use of the inland letter even writing on the flaps and on the space just above the sender’s address. The status symbol yet completely impractical car that was the majestic looking Standard 2000. The great Malayali obsession with the Gulf (Goa had it too). It was an innocent world, particularly from the standpoint of a well loved and protected child.

The Keralite obsession with gold and the insidious practice of giving and demanding dowry are both highlighted here.

There is an assortment of supporting characters. Each character is built up nicely, both physically and with elements of their character traits thrown in, to help us visualize them better. Nambiar’s own attitude to them is mildly sarcastic, yet indulgent, recognizing them as types of characters that perhaps peopled her own childhood, as they did mine.

There is a mystery about the whereabouts of Dileep, the husband of Geetha’s eldest aunt, and Daamodaran Maama’s self-imposed exile that I hoped Geetha would ferret out. The truth does come out but not through her.

Bonus points from me for not setting the Malayalam words in italics, as authors generally do, but for weaving them into the fabric of the novel. As also for the illustration on the cover by Priyankar Gupta.

A part of me wanted Sundarikutty and Bindu to be taught a lesson they would never forget. But life doesn’t always play out like that. At the end of the novel, it isn’t Geetha alone who has her innocence shaken. We too feel rudely awakened.

At the beginning of the novel, Geetha is a blissfully ignorant child who knows precious little of the looks exchanged between the adults. By the end of it, she can’t bear the realization that has come to her. Babu too finds his naiveté shattered.

The end left me feeling dissatisfied, not because of any error on the part of the author, but because I had allowed myself to be so caught up in this idyllic world that it was as if my innocence too was being undone, just like that of the children.

Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is a growing up story. Not only does Geetha become aware of the issues that maturity brings, she also becomes aware of the feudalistic notions that nearly all of us carry at the back of our minds, regarding the unapproachable distance between the ‘master’ and ‘servant’ class.

I would heartily recommend this delightful and charming book.


  1. I enjoyed the book too. Its so much fun and it made me nostalgic of those carefree vacations at grandparents place.
    I agree with you the imagery is beautiful at so many places.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the book too, Manjulika. Didn't it feel as if a good friend was narrating her experiences to us?



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