19 April 2013

Those Pricey Thakur Girls

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Perhaps it’s best to read Those Pricey Thakur Girls when you are alone. Otherwise, how will you explain the endless guffaws that will emerge from you while you navigate New Delhi of the 1980s through the eyes of the Thakurs and the Singh Shekhawats? You will find yourself in the odd quandary of having to explain to your hapless observers how unflappably, undeniably funny this book, which has the suspicious look of a Harlequin romance, is. But how will you lift your head from it long enough to stop these eruptions of laughter and make these explanations? No, it’s best that you read Anuja Chauhan’s new book in the privacy of a sound-proof room.

There will be the temptation to remember the Bennet sisters or the March sisters when the Thakur sisters explode into our lives; we will remember Georgette Heyer’s funniest descriptions, Nancy Mitford’s wittiest observations, Edith Wharton’s sharpest dissections, Kamila Shamsie’s sassiest dialogue. But no, Anuja Chauhan is her very own writer with her very own splendid, ubiquitous, unmistakably clever sense of humour, her very own moments of scandalous, marvellous irreverence.

Justice Thakur has five alphabetically named daughters: Anjini, Binodini, Chandralekha, Debjani, and Eshwari. The alliterative possibilities of these unfortunate names are valiantly explored by the book’s whimsically self-aware protagonists, especially Milord the retired judge, who perennially strives to restore order to his life through just such alphabetical solutions.

D-for-Debjani, whom her flirtatious co-anchor calls Babejani, has just won the honour of reading the news at DeshDarpan, the state’s news channel which is completely controlled by the government, and is on her way to being the country’s sweetheart, complete with perfect diction, kanjeevaram saree, lopsided smile, and a white rose tucked into her hair. But investigative journalist Dylan Singh Shekhawat (D-for-Dylan with d-for-dimples who is d-for-dashing) has our Dabbu in a tizzy. He makes her toes curl, she makes his belly perform ballet, they gaze into each other’s eyes, there are moments of brief physical contact, his voice is husky, her hair is angelic, his dimples flash, they kiss, they dance, they fight, there is a misunderstanding, a reconciliation, another misunderstanding, another reconciliation. How many ways can there possibly be to tell the weary tale of the ingĂ©nue and the rake? Apparently more ways than we had thought.

Meanwhile, their Chachiji is convinced that her husband is having an affair with Hot Dulari the maid (“May she die! May she be eaten by worms! May termites gnaw at her anus!”), their cousin Gulgul wants to wax his chest and start a gym, Binni is worried about her inheritance, Eshwari is too popular in school for her father’s comfort, Anjini, whose own marriage is on the rocks, will not stop flaunting her beauty and flirting with every male that she is not related to, and there is a veritable smorgasbord of supporting characters with joyous little eccentricities. Especially of note are Dylan’s parents (who call each other Bobby and play PacMan together when they’re not worrying about their three lanky half-Rajput-half-Mangalorean sons), Dabbu’s many atrocious marriage prospects, Anjini’s precocious step-son (who, the author has promised us, will return in the book’s sequel), and a lascivious older man who is described as a “heart breaker, hymen breaker.”

It is Eshwari who will steal the most hearts, though. Sharp as a tack and easily the funniest and smartest character in the book, she bounces lightly through the narrative with a quick wit and an eye for detail. Nothing can stop Eshu from offering an opinion on the size, shape, and, if possible, texture of every man’s backside and sometimes his personality. Her good-natured speculations and well-meaning advice frequently cause trouble with brilliant comic timing: “Binni scowls. She has never really forgiven Eshwari for thumbs-downing Vickyji outright when his rishta came for Binni, five years ago. Eshwari, then only twelve, had taken one look at his photograph, drawn a horrified gasp and blurted out, ‘Don’t do it, Binni didi! He can’t even shut his mouth – you’ll spend your whole life keeping him from swallowing flies!’ Which was a slight exaggeration. But it can’t be denied that Vickyji’s teeth radiate out wondrously, like the rays of a cartoon sun. They are also nicely spaced – like modern housing – with a half-inch gap between each tooth. This causes his spit to sometimes spray out. Add to that his short stature, wispy curls and sing-song nasal voice, and one can understand why his wife avers that looks are nothing, it is character that is of supreme importance.”

Chauhan makes no pretensions of bothering with propriety in any way. Chachiji groans comfortably about her adopted son being a duffer, while Catholics are described as stingy, Mangaloreans as wimpy, and East Indians as “chinkies” with no qualms. The girls’ unapologetic voyeurism is, in itself, a refreshing sort of insolence.

Certainly Those Pricey Thakur Girls has many of the pitfalls associated with popular fiction. There is a proliferation of adverbs and modifiers. Nothing is ever simply said or asked – it is remarked or demanded, announced or snorted, it is muttered, confided, exclaimed, drawled. References from 1980s pop culture seem, sometimes, to be tossed into the otherwise brisk storytelling for no reason other than to hammer the era and setting into place.

But all of these casual protests aside, the book is utterly d-for-delicious.

07 April 2013

The Illicit Happiness of Other People

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

What could persuade a seventeen-year-old boy with an extraordinary personality and unusual levels of intelligence and self-possession to take his own life – especially when he is convinced that happiness is his unavoidable destiny? Unni Chacko believed that happiness is inescapable, that human beings have a genetic predisposition to being happy. But one morning, he returned from a haircut and jumped off a balcony. And his family’s world snagged.

Set in Madras of the nineties (a Madras that this reviewer grew up in), The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph, which begins three years after Unni’s death, when he should have been twenty, chronicles the desperate search for answers that leads a father into the underbelly of his son’s private life. Along the way, Ousep Chacko encounters an intrepid group of cartoonists, a neuroscientist, a silent nun, a corpse, and a whole host of other idiosyncratic characters who sound as though they may have stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie but are, in Joseph’s hands, perfectly reasonable everyday individuals.

Ousep is a failed writer, a perpetual drunkard, and an endless asker of questions. His dysfunctional family seems to have no place in the quiet faux-perfection of Balaji Lane – they are “the cuckoos among the crows.” His wife Mariamma is the marvellous Bertha Mason of the story – brilliant, delightful, wicked, tragic, and endlessly plotting the demise of her husband. Mariamma is so markedly intelligent and so sharp sometimes that the other characters seem ever poised to cut themselves on her wit. But her sorrows have come to unhinge her and she spends her days talking to walls.

Their younger son, Thoma Chacko, just querulously stepping into adolescence, is frightened of just about everything – his alcoholic father, his ardent mother, his beautiful neighbour, his unknowable future. It is in Thoma’s wide-eyed remembrances that Unni is best delineated and, in fact, most missed. Thoma’s small world lodges the stormy malcontent of middle-class drudgery and under-achievement, impaled into luminous narratives that at once form the saddest and funniest parts of this discerning book.

Just as probing as Joseph’s first book, Serious Men, although not as frequently funny, Illicit Happiness is a hard look at the pursuit of happiness. Ousep’s interrogations rupture the timid propriety of a social structure that longs to forget its anomalies. But as Ousep’s persistence soon uncovers, Unni was never the sort that could be swept under the rug. The people who knew Unni remember him in different ways that don’t always unite. Some recall his brooding quiet; some his flamboyant personality. But in everyone’s memory, Unni is a beautiful boy who affected them; and almost anyone who came upon him seems to have been utterly smitten with him in their own, peculiar, often inexplicable ways.

When the novel begins, a bizarre twist has convinced Ousep that the mystery of Unni’s life and, therefore, his death can only be unravelled by deciphering the comics that Unni illustrated, several of which are generously described in the pages of the book. In fact, so intriguing and clever do they seem that one wishes sketches and comic strips had been included in the book. But these are petty quibbles that take absolutely nothing away from Joseph’s wry and multi-layered tale.

Madras is as much a character in the book as anyone else, redolently waxed into the details with blithe humour. This is no nostalgia of the romantic. Joseph exposes the many hypocrisies of Madras on the same canvas as its beauties. His writing is unsentimentally exquisite; the prose is languid and unhurried, didactically relying on loose precepts and sweeping philosophies. Few writers can write stereotypes and mouldy generalisations with so fine a grasp or so sharp an eye as Joseph, and, therefore, few can be forgiven for them as easily as he can: “As things are, it does not take much to be a spectacle on this narrow tarred lane. It waits all day to be startled by the faintest hint of strangeness passing through. Such as a stray working woman in the revolutionary sleeveless blouse, who has the same aura here as a divorcee. A man with a ponytail. A north Indian girl in jeans so tight you can see daylight between her legs. It is as if such apparitions are a sign that the future, which has arrived in other places, is now prospecting the city. Here now is the final stand of an age, the last time one can profile a street in Madras and be correct. Men are managers, mothers are housewives. And all bras are white.”

It is hard to say just what sort of book Illicit Happiness is. In parts, it is a psychological thriller, and in parts it is dark comedy; then again, in parts it has the cavernous poignancy that has come to characterise the very best dramatic fiction of our times. It probes moral and philosophical quandaries with stupendous depth, and then quickly pivots into searing satire. At every point, it is thought-provoking and gently remonstrative. The book comes as a reminder when we need it most that despite the many transformations of the world there is still something very wrong with the way we bring up our sons.