Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Close to Home: Parvati Sharma: book review

Close to Home by Parvati Sharma
reviewed by Divya Dubey
Publisher: Zubaan
Place and year: India, 2014
Extent: 204 pp
Price: Rs 399
ISBN: 9789383074822

[Published by Biblio magazine]

Close to Home, Parvati Sharma’s first novel is a simple and engaging read. Readers who have enjoyed her collection The Dead Camel and Other Stories earlier however may find it less stimulating than the former. One could say the biggest strength of this book is that it does not pretend to be great literature, though certain issues of significance have been woven in: caste and class privileges and divides, politics, varying models of sexuality and heterosexist biases.

In an interview with The Indian Express, Sharma says about her protagonist, Mrinalini:
‘I wanted to create a character who was not particularly sensitive to the class divide but was well-intentioned. This is a world that I know about and am privy to, and it is feudal, vicious and horrendously unequal but we prop it up because it props us up […] I wanted to look at the way power works inside the home, between those who appear to have it and those who don’t […] Increasingly, I think a lot of people are impatient with the poor, with socialism. There’s this urge to charge ahead, ‘‘develop’’, make lots of money. There is a lot that happens in between.’ (Lifestyle, The Indian Express, August 10, 2014).

The opening scene between Mrinalini and Jahanara – two friends sharing a barsati in Jungpura Extension – shows a star-struck Jahanara confessing her love to her incredulous yet flattered roommate. While Mrinalini decides to play along with her for the moment (for the lack of a better pastime), the true object of her interest is actually her boyfriend Siddhartha – studying finance in England and hence temporarily absent from the scenario. The rest of the chapter is a parade of the girls’ fantasies expressed through staccato humorous dialogue, which might have been more effective had it been slightly shorter. The length of such exchanges between the characters often makes them trite.

Sharma has a knack for subtle humour well illustrated in the mention of the furniture ‘that Siddharth’s parents had sent across from their termite-ridden Jorbagh home.’ Amusing little vignettes such as this add to the book’s appeal.

On the other hand constructions seem more natural and the narrative more articulate in The Dead Camel. For instance, when the protagonist spots a dead camel on a divider on the road:
At the office I almost brought it up, but it was a Monday, and Monday morning conversation is restricted – it aims, in a doomed sort of way, to recreate the warmth of the weekend inside a cubicle, there is a forced hilarity in its tone; my silent camel would have tilted the balance with its ungainly weight of the world.

Compare the short extract with this single sentence from the novel:
Mrinalini was so obviously delighted by this – the dotcom, though unstinting by way of motivational talk and pizza lunches, offered little real excitement, and Siddharthaa only called on Sundays – and so eager with her questions and generous in her felicitations, that Jahanara, who had tensed as if for a blow after uttering the words I think I’m gay, had uncoiled and unfurled and unthinkingly, discovered, in the time it took them to roll another, that she only ever wanted to tell Mrinalini all her secret and fears, and that the strength of her feeling being what it was, it must be, it had to be reciprocated.

Unfortunately, there is no Joycean grace in the latter quote; instead the sentence structure is unwieldy. Likewise, the first two chapters of the novel seem unnecessarily verbose and at times convoluted. They create the impression that the writer is trying too hard. From chapter three onwards the prose is more fluid.

Mrinalini marries Siddharthaa upon his return from England, breaking Jahanara’s heart in the process. She makes several overtures including ‘sentimental emails’ and ‘formal invitations’ which Jahanara ignores ‘in the interest of her convalescent heart, which was all too liable, still, to fall into daydreams of what might have been.’

Much later at a party Mrinalini meets Jahanara again. Upon learning that Jahanara is not single any more, she blurts out unthinkingly, ‘What’s she like? Is she a real lesbian?’

Even if inadvertently, this part of the novel bears a thematic resemblance to a part of Murakami’s Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. When Haida is told about Tsukuru’s homoerotic dream, he disappears from Tsukuru’s life without a word of explanation. Though Tsukuru is not gay, he thinks that ‘Haida had partially absorbed Tsukuru’s sin, his impurity, and as a result he had had to go far away.’ (Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, p. 106; italics mine).

Parvati Sharma
Both these instances throw up questions about the reaction of many heterosexuals when confronted suddenly with confessions of homosexual proclivities or sentiments. While Haida’s mute withdrawal may seem more understandable, Mrinalini’s casual role-play comes across as mean, dangerous and more disturbing.

In retaliation Jahanara accuses her of being self obsessed and storms out of the gathering, forcing her former ‘lover’ to introspect and prove her wrong.

Enter Chhote Lal (an old faithful servitor of the family), his wife Beena and daughter Anjali – the last adopted by Mrinalini as her protégé in a bid to prove her altruism to Jahanara. Though Mrinalini is against the idea of having children of her own, she leaves no stone unturned in trying to woo and mould little Anjali.

In an urban middle-class Delhi where domestic helps and car drivers are lifelines for most working people (and perhaps one of the most popular subjects of conversation in several office bays every morning), it is natural they should find a crucial role to play in the story. In fact their active involvement in the plot renders the novel authentic.

It begins with Mrinalini’s innocuous offer of a car ride to the excited child, develops into a regular habit of pampering her with cartoon DVDs and learning material, allowing her to encroach upon her personal space – physical and mental – at all times of the day and bestowing little gifts upon her. But she cannot keep the class divide at bay for too long:

The cartoons that Mrinalini skimmed through were either too violent or too inane – or […] “too much in English. She has no idea what’s going on, and how’m I supposed to explain to her why a fat panda wants to learn Kung-Fu?”

A short misadventure in an auto when Mrinalini disappears with the child for hours creates some sourness between the mistress and the maid. To establish truce Mrinalini encourages Anjali’s parents to dream the great Indian dream – of admitting Anjali into a big school. All of Mrinalini’s good intentions freeze, however, when she accidentally eavesdrops upon a revelatory conversation between Beena and Chhote Lal and sees her constant efforts from Beena’s perspective.

The dilemma of cast and class makes a tenuous thread in The Dead Camel too. In the title story for instance, there is a brief mention of Arundhati Roy by a character who says, ‘…I’m a great fan of Arundhati Roy’s […] if you stand her novel against anything she’s written since – or even before – it’s no longer a love story, is it? It’s a really long impassioned article on Dalit rights.’
The conversation then segues into the difference between fact and fiction, the mechanics of journalism, poetry or ‘any kind of art’.

In Close to Home caste dynamics are referred to directly through Mrinalini and Siddhartha’s neighbour Brajeshwar’s published book in which he lampoons them as Raj and Simran. Brajeshwar has also been Mrinalini’s rival as an aspiring author:

She [Simram] told me a long story about watching a man climb down a shitty drain to unblock it. Raj interrupted to say caste had been hijacked by profiteers […] He warned us against getting emotional. Simran said yes, patriarchy was even more entrenched than caste […] We owed our privilege to others’ sufferings and she thought it was a writer’s primary duty to expose injustice.
Sharma is obviously aware of her own class privileges and the location she writes from. Her voice is clear and unapologetic. Even Ambedkar’s much-in-the-news-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Annihilation of Caste (this year) finds a fleeting mention, but the author shies away from taking a clear stand on it. In the context of Round Table India discussions and debates of late, this theme could have been explored further.

The characters have been portrayed well, especially the women – Mrinalini, Jahanara, Anjali and Beena. Sharma’s protagonist is not like Indira Parthasarathy’s Kesavan, striving to break free of his orthodox Brahmin shackles (Poison Roots, Amaryllis, 2014). Her dig at her characters is more Chaucerian in character; her attitude towards them more charitable and indulgent, their weaknesses portrayed more as personal failings than offences of a class. Beena is as guilty of posturing as her mistress. Even towards the end she and her family do not manage to conquer class barriers. Some might view Sharma’s writing as cynical, preferring to maintain the status quo, but it is only a realistic reflection of our life and times.

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