Right at the beginning of Aruna Nambiar’s Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth, we know that the protagonist, 11 year old Geetha, is going to change. The third person narrator tells us that much.
In a wave of childhood relish, Geetha, who lives in Mumbai (then Bombay), is looking forward to her annual summer vacation with her entire joint family in Amabalkunnu in Kerala where she gets to play and eat endlessly with her cousins. And this time, it is going to be even more promising since she is going to spend the entire vacation at her mother’s parents’ house (who are far more liberal and fun) rather than dividing the vacation between her mother’s and father’s parents (who are stricter and make the kids follow a rigorous schedule even in vacation!)
But something has changed this time around. Her sister and cousin, Minnie and Divya, refuse to play with her and indulge in their own secretive rendezvous considering Geetha too immature for whatever they are doing. As a result, Geetha is almost friendless this vacation and turns to the boys, her brother and cousin, Raju and Vicky, for company. But their endless devotion to cricket utterly bores her.
So what do you think Geetha will do now during her summer vacation?
Instead she turns to the kitchen where the maids and the many others are constantly working to keep the sprawling ancestral home called, Devi Nilayam, running. She especially becomes close to Kamala, the cook, who teaches her the many cooking techniques she employs and often asks for Geetha’s help as well.
Simultaneously, the story runs around the other inhabitants of Amabalkunnu namely, Koovait Kannan and his wife, Sundarikutty and how their fortunes turned when the former landed a job in Kuwait! The novel also focuses on the adventures of their children- Bindu and Babu! The other main character in this is also Venu, the inspector!
This interspersing of Geetha’s adventures, the tidbits of her family members along with the stories of the other lesser privileged members in the area and her house is one of the highlights of the Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth. Much like the novel, The Maharaja’s Household by Binodini, Aruna Nambiar has in this story also highlighted the subaltern and how their lives pan out amidst social situations and difficulties.
So how does Geetha change over the course of this vacation? It starts with her having no friends at this tender age and how she has to learn to deal with rejection from her own siblings. The manner in which she also learns to make her own friends and carve her own path despite the haughtiness of her siblings signals an acceptance, an understanding of all kinds of people. This is what also makes her acutely aware of the how the people around her who are not family are also individuals and not mere retainers of a particular role such as gardener, cook etc. Though this realisation comes at the very end, it still is important that it happens.
What is irksome is the entitled ending where a change in her behaviour later in life towards people who do not have as much as her is pinpointed to this one vacation experience. However, is it enough simply to be sympathetic, and should one do more than that is the question that such an ending raises. Despite that, the novel shows a sense of growth in Geetha’s understanding of her self and others around her.
Do I dare to call it a bildungsroman? A female bildungsroman? It does show growth and a change but since the focus of the novel is mostly on one summer vacation and the change is highlighted in fragments and then its complete consequence only at the very end, Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth would just fall short by a few metres of being a female bildungsroman. Perhaps others will disagree. Share in the comments if you agree or disagree.
Until now, we have predominantly seen nostalgic ideas about childhood adventures be it in books or media or advertisements from a male perspective and so Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is a refreshing tale of a quintessential Indian childhood summer vacation form a girl’s perspective. It definitely deserves to be as popular as Malgudi Days!
Sprinkled with Malayalam words (which also heightens the story’s authenticity), Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth‘s tone is reminiscent and nostalgic, being set in the 1980s. It makes the reader wind back to the past and indulge in one’s own childhood days! At least it did for me!
It made me go back to the time when the building compounds in Mumbai had trees and were not concrete yet, when the one satisfying past time was to throw stones to pick out raw mangoes for pickle and eat jamuns from a tree while sitting in a temple! 😀
And for those who grew up in that decade in Kerala, this novel would definitely be an indulgent one to read and travel back to much simpler times.
Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth‘s lighthearted tone, its simplicity embedded in its childhood focus and its childish rollicking charm makes the novel a breezy read, one that you can easily finish over a long journey or a quiet, relaxing vacation.