The stakes are undoubtedly high when the author happens to be a Michelin star chef, renowned restaurateur, celebrity host of television cooking shows and writer of several bestselling cookbooks. Readerly expectations are further piqued when the book launch is accompanied by the unveiling of the trailer of its screen adaptation at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet, Vikas Khanna’s debut attempt at fiction, though heart-warming in parts and driven by a genuine moral zeal, is marred by uneven plotting and banal language.
Set in Varanasi, The Last Color is an idealistic story of faith, promise and friendship between two strangers — Noor, an elderly childless widow, and the foundling, Choti, a 10-year-old street tamasha artist — that draws inspiration from the 2012 Supreme Court judgment revoking the age-old embargo against widows playing Holi. Long accustomed to a pallid life of worldly detachment and self-restraint, Noor comes to believe that the colour of ash is the most beautiful of all shades because this ‘last’ colour does not isolate but unites people in the same universalising hue. In her childishly innocent way, Choti imparts fresh purpose and meaning to Noor’s lacklustre world by treating her to small yet forbidden indulgences such as painting her dirt-encrusted toenails with pink nail polish, gifting her a wig scavenged from the crematorium, stealing raw mangoes whose salted tanginess helps Noor savour memories of her own fleeting though happy childhood, or simply sipping steaming cups of sugary chai together on the picturesque banks of Tulsi Ghat. In turn, Noor inspires Choti to dream by reminding her how even the “smaller, shyer moon” can eclipse the “big and powerful sun”. Sadly though, Khanna’s prosaic expressions are neither equipped to endow this unconventional bond with emotional density nor to express its poignant beauty.
The author deserves greater credit for representing Choti’s attachment to the transgender, Anarkali. Joined in a relationship shorn of sentimentality, their common struggle for self-identity, dignity and social acceptance in an unforgiving world that inflicts ridicule, persecution and violence is by turns darkly comic as well as innately painful. While most of the early action and later suspense centres on this subsidiary narrative, it also propels the primary plot towards its climax: it is Anarkali’s gory end that indirectly paves the way for both Choti’s freedom from drudgery as well as Noor’s accidental death. Unfortunately, the author’s enthusiasm to drive home a social message divests this central narrative of a logically tidy closure by introducing contrived, last-minute twists and new characters that stretch credibility to breaking point. The novel would have fared well enough without concocting Chintu’s chance reappearance after his unexplained absence or policeman Veer’s sudden change of heart as careless attempts to rationalise Choti’s dramatic escape from prison by walking on a tightrope. The abrupt entry of the fiery journalist-cum-social activist, Rekha Saxena, who adopts Choti after putting up a brave fight to bring justice to Anarkali, also lacks sufficient narrative conviction.
The Last Color may not reflect the polish of a seasoned novelist, it is nonetheless a reminder of the obscure world that throbs unnoticed beneath the fabric of workaday life — a world of unrepresented struggles and unacknowledged desires peopled by forgotten widows, ostracised transgenders and unwanted infants. Khanna’s aim of giving voice to the unheard is what partially redeems this novel of its creative flaws.
The Last Color By Vikas Khanna, Bloomsbury, Rs 499