Throughout reading The Grammarian by Annapurna Potluri, I jotted some notes on a flash card as I customarily do, and by the middle of the book I realized I’d written a version of the same thought over and over again—The Grammarian is a work about the prerequisite of youth and beauty within rigid systems of ritualistic womanhood.
But it’s also about much more.
Set in turn-of-the-century Waltair (known in India today as Visakhapatnam), Potluri’s work examines the confluence of femininity, British colonialism, and Indian law, both familial and national. From a critical standpoint, it’s easy to toss terminology like postcolonialism and transnationalism in the mix, but Potluri’s book defies these stereotypes, since the characters and setting of the novel are largely haute-bourgeois and rarely make contact with lower classes / castes / true power of the British Empire. Instead, the novel presented itself to me more as an allegory—every character in the novel is described rather intentionally as enormously handsome, with the notable exception of Anjali, the protagonist handicapped by polio in youth and, perhaps equally handicapped by her lack of beauty.
Through this absence of beauty, Anjali is quietly fated, with little to no family conversation, to be removed as eligible from the strict Indian marriage market, basically the only option for haute-bourgeois Indian girls.
Instead, her conventionally beautiful younger sister, Mohini, is leveraged into the position of family prize. Every day is an alienating countdown to Mohini’s wedding and Anjali’s subsequent spinsterhood. Conflict flares when Anjali is drawn to a handsome French philologist named Lautens – the titular grammarian – who is studying Telugu while staying at the family’s house. If this is the fulcrum on which the plot turns, the conventional attractiveness of every character but Anjali is the fulcrum on which the allegory turns.
The novel takes place against a backdrop of interesting political structures, both naturally occurring and externally imposed. The British systems of life and rule and how to do things “just because it’s how they’re done” echo the Indian caste system and familial system. In The Grammarian, I admire Potluri’s ability to match the rigidity of the Adivi household with external cultural and political stringency. That is, what happens within the servant-tended walls of the Adivi house mirrors the larger political schema. Everyone has an antagonist bigger then themselves who puts them in their place and can exile them.
Anjali is arguably (at least for the first half of the novel) the lowest on the totem pole. As a result of her connection with Lautens, her father kicks her out, forcing her to make a way for herself outside the strict constructs of society that once undermined her chance at happiness.
Her father on the other hand, has British big brother to ensure he does not go into any hotels where he’s not allowed. Only in the privacy of his own home does he have the semblance of being an equal with the Brits. There’s a great stylistic and allegorical twinning of characters, locations, cultures, even ruling systems that takes place in Potluri’s Waltair, and for that I immensely enjoyed the precision and cleanliness of Potluri’s work.
Lastly, and very briefly, a final meta-analytical twinning occurs in the French philologist Lauten’s study of the Telugu language and in the writing of the novel. In addition to being of Indian descent, Potluri is a Cambridge-educated linguist. Kaleidoscopic, right?