Review: The Last Day of Dava Shastri by Kirthana Ramisetti

In the not-too-distant future, on a private island off Long Island, a dying wealthy woman wakes up to the news of her death one day after Christmas: “Dava Shastri, renowned philanthropist, dead at 70.” The blazing headlines give her the expected thrill, as this is an act of self-glorification that she has carefully planned. While cancer has corroded her inside, it hasn’t dampened her appetite for accolades and she hopes to emerge in a blaze of glory. After all, Dava Shastri is no ordinary woman. The New York Times describes her as a “committed New Yorker whose fiery personality served as a bridge between two different worlds that she navigated with ease: the independent music scene and the racy world of New York philanthropy”. And so she divulges the “news” of his death shortly before his medically assisted death hoping for glowing obituaries. What follows instead is completely contrary to his expectations: two rather large skeletons fall out of his closet. So begins Kirthana Ramisetti’s first novel The last day of Dava Shastri.

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It’s close to Christmas, and Dava has summoned her four adult children along with their spouses, partners, and grandchildren to her private retreat, a grand residence whimsically designed like a Swiss chalet. None of the children are aware of his illness or his plans. Over the next few days, as they learn of his illness and choice of euthanasia, shock and grief cast a shadow over the carefully orchestrated stay on the island, where their mistress mother has forbidden the use of any means communication with the outside world. The cloistered stay also exposes the tenuous ties between siblings. Dava’s formidable personality looms over the narrative at all times.

“None of the children are aware of Dava Shastri’s illness or his plans. Over the next few days, as they learn of his illness and his choice of euthanasia, shock and grief cast a shadow over the carefully orchestrated stay on the island…” (Shutterstock)

As the narrative moves back and forth between the present, the final moments of a 70-year-old woman and her life that preceded her, it peels back layers of Dava’s life. It dives deep into the kind of woman she grew up in, her rebel transforming into the daughter, wife, mother, lover and fiery personality she continues to be, in the role she cherishes most, that of ‘a philanthropic entrepreneur who has created a huge legacy that she wants to keep alive at all costs. For this, she wants her eldest daughter to fill her rather wide shoes and take over the reins of her foundation, and for her youngest son to make a biopic about her life. The name Shastri-Persson, the joint names of her husband and herself, must be kept alive is her dying wish.

This is not a family to warm up to. Led by a fiercely ambitious mother who upended convention and a father who chose to stay in the shadows, they’re all a bit chipped and cracked, not necessarily for those reasons. Beneath the distress and extreme challenges of their current situation, individual sibling dynamics take a hit, veneers dissolve, fragile egos crumble, feuds grow uglier and almost threaten to overshadow the main event. , the death of their mother. Arvie, the eldest, named after his Norwegian father, is loud, belligerent and self-centered, and goes on an alcoholic spree. He’s the least likeable character. Sita, the mature daughter, is the one who needs to stay strong and take responsibility, and while it’s not Dava, she’s best equipped to live up to the legacy. Rev, the man-child struggles to come to terms with his collapsing world around him even as he faces individual responsibilities. Handsome and ineffectual, he’s in love but also struggling with a pregnant older girlfriend desperate for a foothold in Dava’s inner circle and a legacy for her unborn child. Kali, the youngest daughter, who has a warm bond with Rev, is in a polyamorous relationship with a dodgy couple. Ramisetti fleshes out each character with distinct identities, but none of them really evoke warmth. Except maybe the protagonist, who embodies a strange mix of privilege, power and vulnerability. Besides the key characters, there are other fillers: Arvie’s boyfriend who is nicer than him, Sita and Arvie’s children, and Rev’s girlfriend who is a sorry misfit in this wealthy family. .

“Dava Shastri’s fondest memory of her late husband is the mixtape compilations they shared as a young couple in love.” (Shutterstock)

Having been an entertainment reporter for publications such as press day and New York Daily News, Ramisetti is no stranger to the world she portrays; his characters come from an environment of extreme privilege. Pop culture and musical references abound. “Ms. Shastri was 26 when she started Medici Artists in 2000, a company that challenged the traditional recording industry by connecting musicians with patrons who funded their work.” read the obituary of The New York Times. The narrative is sprinkled with the names of songs, singers and events. Her fondest memory of her late husband is the mixtape compilations they shared as a young couple in love. But finally The last day of Dava Shastri is a family saga about the evolution of a powerhouse; a reflection of how, as individuals, we cultivate perceptions and make assumptions about our loved ones, and how little we may know about our relatives. Ironically, it was in her final days that Dava Shastri’s children and grandchildren came closest to knowing who she really was.

“Ultimately, the book is a family saga and a reflection of how little we know about our parents.” (Shutterstock)

The narrative reflects extensively on notions of family, companionship, love, husbands and fathers, marriage, motherhood, mortality and conversely immortality. In a newsletter for “New York high achievers,” a young pregnant Dava wrote, “Here’s the truth: I always wanted to have kids, but I didn’t want to be a mother. I wanted the family portrait, the rosy cheeks and the sweet smiles for the camera. I wanted to be proud to see them wave their diplomas in the air on graduation day. I didn’t want the stickiness, the stench, the temper tantrums and, above all, the horrible underlying worry about keeping them alive every day. The story has tender moments: songs that rekindle love, memories of childhood vacations, small and large intimacies.

Author Kirthana Ramisetti (via Amazon)

Ramisetti’s novel gets slightly monotonous in places but is entertaining enough, ends with a big emotional bang, and has the potential to be adapted for the screen. For some curious reason, the face on the cover of the book looks suspiciously like Bollywood diva Rekha.

Sonali Mujumdar is a freelance journalist. She lives in Bombay.

Opinions expressed are personal

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