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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Savi and the Memory Keeper by Bijal Vachharajani

Review: Savi and the Memory Keeper by Bijal Vachharajani

Savitri (Savi) is a grumpy teenager, forced to abandon her friends and move to Shajarpur “a city with the best climate in the world” while mourning the loss of her father. She is cocky and haughty but tends to crumble under the weight of her anxieties and insecurities. While she chooses which lunch table to sit at in her new pyramid-shaped school, the one with the cool kids or the gardening bunch, she realizes she has super powers; powers that, like all great superheroes, she promptly rejects and hides. They are powers that connect her with her past, her father’s, and that of her new city, Shajarpur.

Vachharajani captures the Boiling Frog Syndrome well as Shajarpur the city with the perfect weather slowly starts to heat up under the burden of development. But as the temperature rises slowly and given the distractions of modern life, the climate crisis continues to be ignored. She speaks of the futility of protests, petitions, empty gestures, selfish social media posts, and armchair altruism. All of which have little effect.

244­ pp, ₹350; Hachette

In some ways, this slowly-boiling-frog metaphor also sums up the emotional toil of Savi’s loss. Gradually, she keeps spiraling deeper and deeper over her inability to grieve her father’s death. In her words, a purple frog sits on her heart. In the book, she says, “Which is why every time I opened my mouth to speak, the words came out wrong. Like the steel that tore the earth apart in quarries and mines. My heart would start hammering, my mouth felt dry, and all the nice words I meant to say would just flop out of my brain. I was cold and hard to everyone.”

Vachharajani lays bare the coping mechanisms of Savi’s entire family and shows the loneliness and isolation that loss brings. Each of them suffers alone, together. For her mother, Savi remarks, “Shouldn’t she [her mother] be like a parent, fuss around us, look after us? But no, she was always BUSY. Work, paperwork, depression. Something was always more important than us.”

Author Bijal Vachharajani (Courtesy the subject)
Author Bijal Vachharajani (Courtesy the subject)

Vachharajani’s treatment of trauma and angst is masterful. At no point is it overly dramatic. Intertwining love and loss and how they change the way her characters see their world, she presents nature as a healing force. In the words of Amba Ma’am, “There is something about loss, which makes you really see the changing world outside — the trees turning old and gnarly, the seasons changing steadily, the glorious short-lived flight of the butterfly… a steadying, dizzying reminder of the world that goes on, and our place in it.” At this point, the reader is hit with an epiphany — nature keeps time.

This is a novel where the human characters are grim and nature is hilarious, and it is an inversion that works really well. The plants, the wasps, and the trees, all have perfect comedic timing. Their personalities are sassy and smart and can rival those of teenage influencers. Sample the jasmine plant in Savi’s room that, despite her best efforts, refuses to bloom but gives off a sweet aroma when her sister tends to it. “Emotional blackmailer,” Savi mutters to it.

If there is ever a good reason to buy a book it is the villain. Vachharajani aces this bit. Her brand of evil is so Indian, so bland; so overt, it’s covert. Without giving much away, the joy of visualising top-secret board meetings full of evil agendas being presented over bowls of chivda is one of my favourite book images this year.

Her writing rolls off the page when she’s talking about nature. She brings to life complex ecosystems, botanical trivia, wasps and butterflies, and undersoil turns into fairy dust in her hands. With quiet prose, the novel announces its heart to the reader. It is the love or the joy of watching life bloom. It is rewarding to read about a moody teenager being transformed by nursing a plant back to life and helping a tree bear fruit. Nature makes Savi feel more real; it works as an anchor to the real world just as she’s sinking into the miasma of her past. She feels she’s doing something ‘tangible’ while she’s gardening.

The great joy of tending to a balcony garden. (Shutterstock)
The great joy of tending to a balcony garden. (Shutterstock)

To those with house plants, balcony gardens, and vegetable patches, I cannot recommend this book enough. If this doesn’t bump the sales of jasmine shrubs nothing else will. For the rest, it is hard to walk away from this book; it is harder to put it down mid-way, and hardest to believe that this is fiction.

While most books that deal with environmental issues are preachy, this one is filled with love and sass. Vachharajani evokes how nature is such a fundamental part of childhood nostalgia, and joyful memories. It is the intervention we need to realize that this planet needs tending, and it is a potent reminder that the great outdoors, our places of joy, are ever so slowly disappearing.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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