01 September 2012

Another Country

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Poor Leela. Everyone is mean to her. Her friends are jealous of her. Men just want to sleep with her. Except when they want to marry her. Nobody understands her. She belongs nowhere. Her days are too full. Her wallet’s too small for her fifties and her diamond shoes are too tight.

Self-pity and whining are the general themes of Another Country by Anjali Joseph. Leela, its protagonist, is painfully self-involved. By all appearances, Leela leads a fabulous life: living alone in Paris, then London, and then Bombay in her twenties, she is reasonably affluent, highly-educated, sexually liberated, socially active, and not unattractive. But Leela constantly, inexplicably feels victimised.

In Paris, she wants Patrick, but ends up in a friendly romp in the sack with his friend, Simon, whom she neither cares for nor even likes very much. And yet when he explains that he has no intentions of a real relationship with her, Leela bears the wounded air of a martyr. In London, she continually whines about her loveless relationship with the next boyfriend, Richard, but takes three years to break it off, after which she plays the victim once again. At the end of the London section, she embarks on yet another it’s-complicated relationship with Roger that ends with – surprise, surprise – Leela breaking it off and feeling exploited. In Bombay, she takes a break from the usual theme and decides to feel persecuted by the mother of the next boyfriend instead.

In fact, as a rule, Leela seems to dislike all women. She is nasty about Amy, her supposed best friend, behind her back to Richard, whom she is dating but does not like very much. She decides, with absolutely no reason, that Chitra, her friend in Bombay, is envious of her relationship with Vikram, whom, once again, she is dating but does not like very much. While travelling through Kerala, she imagines that the wives of the local fishermen despise her because their husbands fantasise about her. Leela seems to believe that every woman has a vendetta against her – her friend’s mother in London, her boss in Bombay, the women she meets in Paris. Vikram’s mother is painted like an evil caricature. Of her own mother, she is contemptuous.

At a party in London, Leela decides that Amy is flirting with Richard. A few chapters later, at a party in Bombay, Leela is convinced that everyone wants to steal Vikram from her and deals this patronising blow: “Duelling with another woman for a man’s attention was an important female skill she’d never had – it seemed to involve things like confidence, hair flicking, talking loudly, touching the man in question, all techniques she’d memorised but never been able to implement.” At a charity event, she describes the gathering as “mostly women of a certain age and income”. About Vikram’s mother, she says: “People are weird about their sons. Mothers.” Leela’s small-mindedness manifests in patriarchal clich├ęs and sexist stereotypes – jealous women, possessive mothers, cat fights, desperate housewives – that, in contemporary writing, ought to have crossed the line from insensitive to laughable by now. Instead, it is hugely frustrating.

Leela comes across as smug, shallow, and judgemental. She is frequently irresponsible and regularly selfish. She has no clue what she wants, which is a blessing when you consider the fact that even if she did, she is unlikely to ever put any effort into going after it. She continually drifts, allowing things to happen to her, not bothering to attempt anything concrete. Nothing gives her satisfaction – career, romance, friendship, family, travelling. But what magnifies her querulous nature is its sheer needlessness: Leela has no real problems to speak of. Her crises are at best non-existent and at worst mild. One day, she ruminates the colours of the files in her office: “In the tube, she brooded. Everything in the office conspired against her; even the physical environment.”

Perhaps it was the author’s intention to create a wholly unlikable character. But if it is the duty of literature to showcase the human spirit in all its ugliness, shouldn’t there also be an awareness of it? There is no recognition of fallibility, no aim for a higher existence. What comes through brilliantly is the sense of purposelessness that the twenties are often beset with – the monotony of halfhearted success, the motionlessness of perpetual movement, and the passage towards adulthood that breeds the apathy that breeds contempt. Joseph captures the endless parade of inconsequential events that cloud over everyday routine with terrifying accuracy. Like some other subcontinental writers (Aamer Hussein particularly springs to mind), Joseph disengages from the larger picture in order to embroider more intricately the complexity of small, meaningless negotiations, mundanely lathered, rinsed, and repeated.

Joseph’s writing is beautiful in a dry, wry way that breathes elegance into nothingness. Her lyrical sparseness is highly original. Individual moments are vividly examined, encased in locations so gorgeously described and details so intensely catalogued that one regrets that this isn’t travel writing. It might have been nicer still to see that skill employed in pursuit of a less exasperating character.

Other reviews of this book that I enjoyed were in DNA and The Guardian: The Observer (which succinctly sums up: "Irritating girl and, ultimately, an irritating book").