Thursday, September 17, 2015

A very rooted story: Chasing New Rainbows by Manika Lal

How much of a person's life is defined by his or her origins, the place he/she was born in, the family and the town which define him/her?
India's modern stories are often found in the metropolises, or else in the rural areas. Stories from small towns, where the social structure is far more defined than in the big cities, where your ancestors and their peccadilloes are public knowledge, are not so very common, especially original works in English. Life may take the person out of the small town, but it is not so easy to take the small town out of the person. Manika Lal's novel, Chasing New Rainbows, explores the life stories of two 'best' friends, Kalpana and Vasundhara, growing up in the nineteen seventies, whose life trajectories take them on very divergent paths.

A deep childhood friendship apparently comes to an end with Kalpana's sudden marriage to Prince. (Yes, his family seems to have delusions of grandeur : although not of royal blood, they are very wealthy. Thankfully, he does have a nicer, desi, name). Although she would like to study further, beyond graduation, a cousin 'aunt' finds a perfect match for Kalpana, with immense pressure for an immediate marriage, as the prospective groom's grandfather is very ill and would like to see his Prince married before he departs this world. Prince is an ambitious young man who would rather focus on his business plans than on marriage, and although he agrees to marry, he is very cold to his beautiful new bride. She does come to terms with this new life, but a core of dissatisfaction remains deep within her. When they move to Mumbai, she is happiest when at her bedroom window, overlooking the birdbath in the housing society's garden, watching the birds. For her, birds and open spaces are home, the childhood home she has lost forever, since her parents have locked up their sprawling ancestral home and moved to a city to stay with their only son. Motherhood brings its own satisfactions as well as a new loneliness to Kalpana's life....

Vasundhara's childhood is far more restricted and constrained than Kalpana's. Perhaps their families had been similar to begin with, with large properties in the town. Vasu's father, however, has not consolidated his ancestral holdings, but has squandered them, leaving him with just the house he lives in, and a job in the local municipality, which somehow sustains his family. His hopes and ambitions centre around his son, Akash, Vasu's older brother. All resources are spent on his education and his nurturance. Even his baby sister is taught to take care of her older brother. Akash does go abroad for higher education and a job, but, tragically, suddenly stops communicating with his family. A pall  of gloom descends upon their home. Vasu has recently graduated, but is completely shaken by this event. Kalpana's visit telling her about her impending marriage upsets her even more, as she had hoped that they could, once again, study further together. (Kalpana's parents had sent her to live with her Nani and attend college in Nani's much bigger town). Her aunt, Muniya Bua, is shocked to see the state of her brother and his family, and especially her young niece, when she visits them on Raksha Bandhan. She decides to take Vasundhara back with her to her home in Delhi. Vasu's response to life in the capital is described beautifully and with great empathy. Slowly but surely, Vasundhara overcomes her insecurities, takes up a job, grows independent and supports her parents to the best of her ability. In all this, her family neither seeks out a match for her, nor do they encourage her to find one for herself. Vasundhara excels at her work, but is also very lonely, despite the unwanted interest shown in her by several male colleagues. A business associate from Mumbai seems to be interested in her, and she feels a growing attraction towards him.....

A chance meeting at a mall in Mumbai brings Kalpana and Vasundhara together again. Their renewed friendship helps both of them share their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other,  overcome a great deal of pain and sorrow, and find the eponymous new rainbows that they have both been looking for.

Manika Lal writes with great sensitivity and empathy. The interior lives of her characters are richly described. The chapters dealing with the different characters add layers to the narration. Finally, it is a book of hope and courage. (I also feel that better editing is required). I am hoping for a sequel!

No comments: