When Simon Jesukumar misses his train back to Madras from Delhi, among his lost possessions are his deceased wife’s thick manuscript, which he has lugged from publisher to publisher over the years out of a sense of guilt and duty. Aging, curmudgeonly, and living alone in an apartment complex beside the city’s vast and thriving slum, Sitara, he is returning from a stay with his son – whose mother-in-law he has struck a slightly dubious friendship with. His only companion at home is his cat Thangu; when his formerly-estranged daughter Sandhya visits, he tolerates her with a mix of parental affection and genuine dismay. Kavery Nambisan’s The Story That Must Not Be Told opens with tremendous promise, introducing to the reader this complicated old man, one of the most interesting protagonists seen in recent Indian fiction.

Throughout the novel, similarly adroitly-sculpted characters make their appearances, only to fade in importance. Each of them – from the noble butcher Gaffur to the quack doctor Prince to the envious and dastardly Ponnu – come with a compelling backstory. The slum itself is drawn with a strong sense of the overbearing spirit pervasive through locations as complex and gritty as Sitara (or even Madras itself). The trouble is, cast and setting both arrive fully-formed and precisely executed in a novel that loses track of its own plot.

The Story That Must Not Be Told is essentially a story about the human condition as it plays out in urban India today, dichotomized by privilege and its lack, and juxtaposed by sheer proximity. Simon decides to buy a water cooler for the school in Sitara, and thus begins his involvement with the slum and its people. This is at odds with his neighbours at Vaibhav Apartments, who want to see to it that the slum is cleared. Questions of crime and hygiene have become issues; nonetheless, manual labour – from schoolboys running errands for the elderly to construction workers, and most especially, cleaners of toilets – comes directly from Sitara.

It’s a familiar scenario to any Indian: one may have people from lower classes cleaning their houses, may work for people of higher classes, or may take a conscientious approach and attempt or claim to eschew this system altogether, but ultimately all of us exist within it. This means that realistically, we already know how the story ends, and the onus on the element of surprise and originality rests with the author.

Still, Nambisan’s finesse at etching her characters is hugely admirable. Despite his cantankerousness and stubbornness, one finds it impossible not to side with Simon entirely. In a perfect echo of his sentiments, the slum dwellers are notably more nuanced than his own family and apartment neighbours – all of whom irritate the reader just as much as they do Simon. One roots for Simon and Sitara, and reads the book through in order to find out what happens.

That the book devolves into unresolved loose ends, a pat finish, and a bit of political commentary is thus all the more disappointing. There is a sense that the horse and the cart were switched at some point during the narrative; instead of being led by the natural pathos of its characters, the thematic and didactic aspects of the story gain precedence. Much is lost: the truth behind the misplaced manuscript is never resolved, the burgeoning friendship between Simon and his son’s mother-in-law is unexplored, and the eventual fate of Sitara is given an almost cursory conclusion. A much stronger and more stunning novel could have emerged if the focus had remained on the details, and not the pursuit of a bigger picture.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.