Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Immigrant

By Manju Kapur

My week of Indian women writers. Manju Kapur is of course of a different generation from Madhavan. And of quite a different sensibility. Her forte is writing nuanced realistic accounts of the quiet desperation millions of middle class Indian women live through and fight; of the daily struggle for individual identity against a society beset with rules that submerge it; of the tussle between the personal and the public persona. The women in her novels all in their own way fight for and pay a price for self-affirmation.

The Immigrant is Nina, a 30 year old unmarried lecturer at Miranda House in Delhi University, living with her widowed mother, who has little to dream about than her daughter’s marriage. The setting is India during the emergency and when a proposal comes from a dentist settled in Canada, there is little resistance that Nina offers. Ananda seems decent and nice; India during the Emergency had little to offer a young English lecturer and her mother is over the moon over her daughter’s prospects.

Nina goes to Halifax, Canada and slowly tries to assimilate. It is a struggle for her – her first experience at the immigration counter is humiliating, she has to put away her lovely sarees for ill-fitting jeans and shirts, her education and teaching experience count for nothing and she is forced to sit idle at home, the family support and infrastructure that you so easily take for granted back home is completely missing. But the most difficult is the adjustment on the home front – to a husband with a sexual dysfunction that leaves her frustrated and childless. It creates a wedge in their marriage that is not helped by a basic difference in their interests and passions. It drives both of them to look elsewhere for pleasure and the unraveling of the immigrant dream begins.

Eventually Nina finds her niche, at least professionally. And when her mother dies unexpectedly, Nina is for the first time left completely alone in the world, freeing her up to take decisions that let her assert her individuality beyond what is seen as norm – to pick up newer spots to lay down fresh roots, to re-invent herself, to form new friends and family.

The Immigrant is an exploration of the psyche of a woman who journeys away from everything familiar to a land and people completely unknown. It is a journey that is much more than the physical; one that gets Nina finally to a place of affirmation of identity and personal choice. It is not an easy place, but it is one she has created for herself.

As is expected, Manju Kapur does not disappoint with this lovely little book.

You are Here

By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

You Are Here is The Compulsive Confessor (a much talked about blog in the Indian blogosphere), Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s debut novel. Reviews have labeled it chick-lit, mostly in the pejorative sense. I like well-written chick-lit (Bridget Jones Diary, The Devil Wears Prada to name a few). Or for that matter lad-lit (About a Boy, Man and Boy). And I liked You Are Here.

Madhavan writes pretty much the way she writes on her blog – first person personal, frank, uninhibited. You are Here chronicles the goings-on in the life of a 25 year old girl, Arshi, living the single life in Delhi, working at her first job. Her life is mostly dominated by her friends - her roommate Topsy, leading the double life most Indian girls are used to (the virginal salwar kameez-ed daughter to her conservative parents and the drinking partying fun girl to her friends and Muslim boyfriend Fardeen) and old school friend Deeksha (back from the US and getting married), her boyfriends (she is just out of a relationship with a lying-cheating one and hoping to get into another with a guitar-playing Adonis) and a caricature of a female boss she hates.

Arshi is possibly a prototype of a new kind of young Indian woman – casual about a lot of things taboo to a previous generation – smoking, drinking, sex; thinking of herself as cosmopolitan and global – a night club or bar is her most natural setting and John Mayer and Kajra Re both find equal resonance with her. Yet at a fundamental level, there is little modern about her. She obsesses about her relationships and comes across as very vulnerable and needy when it comes to men - “They never worry, these boys we love. They keep us on tenterhooks, just by their unconcern. We spend our days agonizing over them; at nights if we’re out together we try to make them jealous…but they rarely seem to care and at the end of the evening just a casual arm around our waists…can make us weak in our knees…. Neediness kills. Somewhere within our souls something dies every time we are needy and the boys we care so much about are dismissive of it.” – Greer or Beauvoir she is not. Also, there is a surprising lack of ambition career-wise. She is obviously intelligent and clever, yet her job at the PR firm is just a job to earn some money and her mother needs to prod her into making an attempt at a higher education. Like I said, the modernity is superficial…or at least different from how I would describe the word.

And yet I liked her - this superficially modern, needy unambitious young woman. Arshi’s vulnerabilities touch you. They are growing up pains that we have experienced – “The Future, if you know what I mean, was Here: The point in our lives we had looked towards when we were younger, half laughing as we said that some day this will be us, because we didn’t really believe we could be anything other than sixteen. We were so sure we’d never be ‘grown-up’, never be surprised by adulthood, that life wouldn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder and make us jump.” She describes thoughts and feelings we only sneakily admit to – “Being hot makes up for so many things in a man.” And she does write with wit and humour – “It’s always like this when you meet the people you’ve been sexually intimate with, I think: an instant porn movie inside your head.”

You are Here is a good fast funny quirky read. Good time-pass. Something the Kunal Basus and Raj Kamal Jhas of the world would do well to emulate.