Title: Perfectly Untraditional
Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs. 350
The blurb makes me nervous. Dead mother, secret in mum's life, dad angry about daughter's divorce, angrier about her new lover...is this yet another book exploring the tired theme of the seemingly docile, maternal housewife whose family discovers she had a paramour?
However, one finds out soon enough that the mother's story is only the subtext. Sweta Srivastava Vikram's debut novel, Perfectly Untraditional, has a refreshingly unique subject - an Indian lesbian who's trying to forge a bond with her father.
The beginning gives nothing away. 'Foreign-return' Shaili Kapoor, her best friend from India, her best friend from New York, and her father are on their way to a puja for her recently-deceased mother. Over the course of an afternoon, Shaili and her father Suresh look back at the fifteen years that have passed since Shaili's wedding to a handsome investment banker, wondering whether they can ever patch up a damaged relationship of thirty-seven years.
The novel doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. And it's not the voice of the gay community in India or abroad, it's not an attempt to empathise with people who are fretting over why they can't make a traditional life work, it's not a diatribe against arranged marriages, and it's not a vindication of the rights of lesbians. It's the story of a woman who knows the lives of some of the people closest to her have been ruined, probably by her desires, and doesn't know whether she's the victim or the perpetrator.
Through Shaili's interactions with her once-vivacious mother, her once-abusive father, her loyal friend, caring-husband-turned-hurt-ex, and her stoic live-in partner, the author weaves part of the fabric of Shaili's life, and leaves the protagonist to pick up the threads of the rest.
The complexity of her situation is brought out in simple, direct sentences, with a distinctive Indian tinge. Sweta Srivastava Vikram consciously uses phrases that, though archaic in other English-speaking countries, are still part of everyday speech in India.
But one wonders whether the book may not have worked better if it had used multiple first-person narratives. It is ambitious in striving to mesh various perspectives together, and demands detailed description of the characters' personalities, appearance, as well as ideas.
To the author's credit, she slips in nuanced observations rather casually into the narrative. Here's one:
The boys would hop on to the first flight available to India. Before reaching the airport, they would make a pit stop at Costco to buy a generic diamond engagement ring for some woman they would eventually marry on the trip.
The ideas some of her characters struggle with leave the reader smiling. The best illustration of this is perhaps when Suresh Kapoor finds out his daughter's partner is an Iranian woman. His first question is, "Were there no Indian women in New York?"
Anyone who's grown up in, or lived in, Delhi will nod along with another character's reflection that "Delhi is about extremes. Extreme love, extreme hate, extreme holi, extreme diwali, extreme winter, extreme summer, extreme temperament, extreme passion and extreme people. If you aren't extreme or don't like extremes, Dilli won't agree with you."
And then there are times when one finds oneself thinking "oh, yeah, that happens". For instance, Shaili notices that her husband's accent is more American in New York than in Pune.
The narrative is sensitive to the whims of characters, and doesn't judge them for it. It portrays human reactions realistically, without dressing them up in noble intentions. A woman who loves the idea of globe-trotting and shopping in New York has to reconcile herself to the knowledge that the professor she intends to marry will never be able to give her that life. A man who wants to beat his wife's lover to pulp is stumped when he finds out the latter is a woman.
It's commendable that the first-time author, whose acknowledgements indicate she's happily married (and heterosexual), chose to break off from the trend of people writing about the lives they have experienced.
Sadly, the editing doesn't do justice to the story. The timelines are rather confused. A fourth-season episode of Sex and the City (which was broadcast in the United States from 1998 to 2004) could not have been out at the time of Shaili's wedding, and a good editor should have spotted the anomaly and suggested a more authentic reference to the nineties.
The growing popularity of Indian fiction and the promise of good returns on the investment of bringing books out have triggered off a mushrooming of small publishers. It is disappointing when they take new authors for granted and allow typos and slips to go through, especially when they price the books the way they do.
But that shouldn't detract either from Sweta Srivastava Vikram's talent or the sensibilities of the book. She is a promising storyteller, who isn't afraid to tackle new territory. And while the mistakes may distract temporarily, they don't stop the reader from turning the pages, anxious to find out what happens next.