Monday, March 21, 2011
Book Review: The Vague Woman's Handbook
Devapriya Roy's first novel is an appealing look at contemporary urban life through the eyes of its female protagonists, one young and one middle-aged, as well as a few vignettes from a male point-of-view. Just this morning I was visiting Parul's blog, in which she is talking about the annoying fashion of naming anything written by a young female author as 'chick-lit'. Devapriya's book most certainly should not be categorized as such.
Mil Chatterjee is twenty-two, and in the opening chapter is searching for the location of the office in which she will appear for her first job interview. She has married her college sweetheart in defiance of all the parents concerned, since he had decided that he wanted to get married 'now or never'. Logic does not work with a young man in that particular frame of mind, and so Mil, in a tremendous leap of faith, marries this young scholar who is working on his PhD at an obscure institute of defence studies. There is great charm in Devapriya's writing about the life of a young couple in Delhi, who are not really of the city and yet are learning to live there, Mil with her non-existent sense of direction, and Abhi with his reliance on Google maps! Both of them are too proud to take any financial help from their parents, and Abhi's fellowship cheques always reach him late in the month. The nosy landlord and his family, the maid (who sounds most inefficient), and the trials and tribulations of housekeeping by youngsters who have little or no idea of home or finance management are fun to read about.
Mil's youth and dreaminess are central to her classification as a vague woman. Despite being married to the love of her life, she is deeply unhappy at being estranged from her parents because of this. Although her mother still speaks to her occasionally, the conversations normally end up with tears or shouting or both. Her father, whose pet she has obviously been, doesn't communicate with her at all. The disapproval of Abhi's parents, particularly his mother, also adds to her angst. Abhi soldiers on, trying to deal with his responsibilities as a married man, not quite appreciating how his decision to turn down a full scholarship to a prestigious American university has suddenly reduced his worth in the eyes of the world, his parents and Mil's parents. What is beautifully conveyed is both his awareness of and acceptance of Mil's fragility in this brave new world they find themselves in. His impatience can make him take strange decisions, sometimes, like the time he and Mil go furniture shopping!
Despite being an hour late for her job interview, Mil actually does land the job, on contract, and is befriended by her colleague, Indira Sen, a widow in her early fifties, who lives in a rambling house with her college going daughter, water and washing obsessed mother-in-law, paternal uncle and her extremely dominating mother. Indira is not at all in control of her life- she is mild mannered and finds it hard to stand up to anyone, especially her mother, and has landed herself in a terrible mess- she owes several banks huge sums of money on various credit cards and loans, and despite paying off minimum amounts due every month, finds her debts increasing exponentially. The situation is so bad that collection agents have started visiting her house and frightening her mother. Indira and Mil are enjoying tea and chocolate cake together in Indira's office, when her mother calls and launches into a powerful tirade against her daughter's spending habits and the dire consequences the entire family is facing because of these. Mil cannot help overhearing her friend's side of the conversation- Indira's vulnerability somehow catalyses a far warmer friendship than would otherwise be likely. Despite her general fragility and vagueness in dealing with her own issues, Mil helps Indira face up to her credit card problems and gets her started on solving them. The fact that they are both foodies also helps cement their friendship!
Each character rings true, although Indira's mild-mannered mother-in-law, Ashamayee rarely figures in the story and is really a vague sort of character, poles apart from the stock mother-in-law figure. As a grown woman who has to move back to her parents' house when her husband dies, Indira's loss of autonomy is tangible. She finds joy in being out of the house as much as she can, and her office is a home away from home for her. She overeats, loves to read, is a messy housekeeper, and is a warm and empathetic friend.
Abhi is a passionate follower of a website called the Desh Defense Forum, and his real and virtual battles with members of this forum often occupy his thoughts. And yet, his observations on the nature of married life are often poignant:
Happiness had come and gone and come again over the next few weeks, in moody fits and starts. Extreme joy was followed, Abhi had noted, by the tiredness of new beginnings, of building from scratch, of worries that never seemed to cease. There were the cheques that never came on time from the institute. There were the parents - all four of them - who silently strolled the house with unhappy footsteps. There was all the growing up, all the responsibility that sometimes became an invisible monster in the room, taking up all the oxygen and eating all the food. But sometimes everything would be as light and airy as bubbles in the air.
Of course Abhi and Mil are of great interest to their neighbours.
The first time Abhi and Mil had fought satisfactorily, that is, accompanied by a banging of chairs and a banshee-like wail, everyone in the neighbourhood had been rather relieved that these two bookish types also fought like cats and dogs............. It happily confirmed their opinion that the romance- manifested in cheek-to-cheek dancing in candlelight during load shedding, the shadows hugging the peeling white walls of the house, the reports of rabid discussions over a book as reported by the maid,................ the romance was rapidly deteriorating into spousehood.
In essence, though, the book left me with the conviction that however old or grown up or mature we may think ourselves to be, the need for parental approval and love always remains. There are no villains here- Mil's and Abhi's parents, and even Indira's overpowering mother, Charu, all have their child's best interests at heart. There is much working out of karma for each of them before resolution is attained.
A delightful portrayal of contemporary urban life, evoking much thought on the nature of our core relationships.
The Vague Woman's Handbook by Devapriya Roy, published by Harper Collins, 2011.