HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti

Review: Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti

In a none too distant future, on a private island off Long Island, a wealthy dying woman wakes up to the breaking news of her death a day after Christmas: “Dava Shastri, renowned philanthropist, dead at 70”. The blazing headlines give her the anticipated frisson, as this is an act of self-aggrandizement that she has planned carefully. While cancer has corroded her insides, it has not diminished her appetite for accolades and she hopes to go out in a blaze of glory. After all, Dava Shastri is no ordinary woman. The New York Times describes her as a “committed New Yorker whose spirited personality served as a bridge between two different worlds she traversed with ease: the independent music scene and the high bred world of New York philanthropy.” And so she leaks the “news” of her death a little before her medically-assisted death hoping for glowing obituaries. What follows instead is wildly contrary to her expectations: two rather large skeletons tumble out of her closet. Thus begins Kirthana Ramisetti’s debut novel Dava Shastri’s Last Day.

385pp; Grand Central Publishing

It is close to Christmas, and Dava has summoned her four grown children with their spouses, partners and her grandchildren to her private retreat, a grandiose residence fancifully designed like a Swiss chalet. None of the children are privy to her illness or her plans. Over the course of the next few days as they learn of her illness and her choice of euthanasia, shock and grief cast a pall over the carefully orchestrated stay on the island, where their controlling mother has forbidden the use of any means of communication with the outside world. The cloistered stay also lays bare the tenuous ties between siblings. Looming over the narrative at all times is the formidable persona of Dava.

“None of the children are privy to Dava Shastri’s illness or her plans. Over the course of the next few days as they learn of her illness and her choice of euthanasia, shock and grief cast a pall over the carefully orchestrated stay on the island...” (Shutterstock)
“None of the children are privy to Dava Shastri’s illness or her plans. Over the course of the next few days as they learn of her illness and her choice of euthanasia, shock and grief cast a pall over the carefully orchestrated stay on the island…” (Shutterstock)

As the narrative moves back and forth between the present, the slowly ticking final moments of a 70 year old, and her life that came before, it peels off layers of Dava’s life. It digs deep into the kind of woman she grew up to be, her rebel turns as daughter, wife, mother, lover, and the feisty personality she continues to be, in the role that she cherishes the most, that of a philanthropist-entrepreneur who has created an enormous legacy which she wants kept alive at all costs. To that end, she wishes for her elder daughter to fill her rather large shoes and take over the reins of her foundation, and her younger son to make a biopic on her life. The name Shastri-Persson, the conjoined names of her husband and herself, must be kept alive is her dying wish.

This isn’t a family one warms up to. Led by a fiercely ambitious mother who turned conventionality on its head and a father who chose to remain in the shadows, they are all a little chipped and cracked, not necessarily for those reasons. Under the distress and extreme challenges of their current situation, individual dynamics between siblings take a beating, veneers dissolve, brittle egos crumble, the spats get uglier and nearly threaten to upstage the main ‘event’, their mother’s death. Arvie, the eldest, named after his Norwegian father, is loud, belligerent and self-absorbed, and goes on a drinking spree. He is the least likeable character. Sita, the mature daughter, is the one who must stay strong and take responsibility, and although no Dava, she is the one best equipped to live up to the legacy. Rev, the man-child struggles to come to terms with his world collapsing around him even as he must face up to individual responsibilities. Handsome and ineffectual, he is in love but also grappling with a pregnant older girlfriend desperate to get a toehold in Dava’s inner circle and an inheritance for her unborn child. Kali, the younger daughter, who has a warm bond with Rev, is in a polyamorous relationship with a dubious couple. Ramisetti fleshes out each character with distinct identities, but none of them really evoke any warmth. Except perhaps the protagonist, who epitomises a strange mix of privilege, power, and vulnerability. Besides the key characters, there are other fillers: Arvie’s boyfriend who is nicer than he is, Sita and Arvie’s children, and Rev’s girlfriend who is a sorry misfit in this wealthy family.

“Dava Shastri’s most cherished memory of her deceased husband is the mixtape compilations they shared as a young couple in love.” (Shutterstock)
“Dava Shastri’s most cherished memory of her deceased husband is the mixtape compilations they shared as a young couple in love.” (Shutterstock)

Having been an entertainment reporter for publications such as Newsday and New York Daily News, Ramisetti is no stranger to the world she portrays; her characters come from a background of extreme privilege. Pop culture and musical references abound. “Ms Shastri was 26 when she created Medici Artists in 2000, a company that challenged the traditional record business by connecting musicians with patrons who funded their work.” reads the obituary from The New York Times. The narrative is peppered with song names, singers and events. Her most cherished memory of her deceased husband is the mixtape compilations they shared as a young couple in love. But ultimately Dava Shastri’s Last Day is a family saga about the evolution of a powerhouse; a reflection of how, as individuals, we cultivate perceptions and make assumptions about those closest to us, and of how little we might know our parents. Ironically, it is in her final days that Dava Shastri’s children and grandchildren get closest to knowing who she really was.

“Ultimately, the book is a family saga and a reflection of how little we might know our parents.” (Shutterstock)
“Ultimately, the book is a family saga and a reflection of how little we might know our parents.” (Shutterstock)

The narrative largely reflects upon notions of family, companionship, love, husbands and fathers, marriage, being maternal, mortality, and conversely immortality. In a newsletter meant for “high-achieving New York mothers” a young pregnant Dava has written: “Here’s the truth: I always wanted to have children, but I didn’t want to be a mother. I wanted the family portrait, the rosy cheeks and sweet smiles for the camera. I wanted the heart-swelling pride of watching them wave their diplomas in the air on graduation day. I didn’t want the stickiness, the stink, the tantrums, and above all, the horrifying, overlying worry about keeping them alive every single day.” The narrative has some tender moments: songs that rekindle love, memories of a childhood vacation, the small and big intimacies.

Author Kirthana Ramisetti (Via Amazon)
Author Kirthana Ramisetti (Via Amazon)

Ramisetti’s novel gets mildly monotonous in parts but is sufficiently entertaining, ends with a big emotional bang, and has the potential to be adapted for the screen. For some curious reason, the face on the book cover bears an uncanny resemblance to Bollywood diva Rekha.

Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

The views expressed are personal

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