Book Reviews

Review Published in NATIONAL REVIEW

Exercise in Triviality

Navtej Sarna

A Woman Madly in Love by Boman Desai; Roli Books; Rs. 395

Contrived fluff and exhausting verbiage make this novel a disappointing read

TWENTY PAGES into Boman Desai’s A woman Madly in Love, I confessed to a man I thought was my friend that the novel had not quiet hooked me. It will improve, he said, just carry on. That was, to say the least, an unfriendly act. Five days and about 400 pages later, the promise remained unfulfilled and one was faced again with a familiar quandary. How does one give a book like this a soft landing? One does not want to be uncharitable, knowing the life-wringing torture, euphemistically known as the creativity process, that the author must have gone through, followed no doubt by difficult days with agents and publishers. On the other hand, did the innocent reader, attracted no doubt by Amrita Sher-Gil’s self – portrait on the cover and a title reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence, deserve this mammoth exercise in triviality?

The story, essentially speaking, can be encapsulated thus: an attractive Parsi woman flits from Mumbai to Chicago to Mumbai to Chicago, making love to various men whose age are far different than hers, plus of minus double figures. The rest of the 400-odd pages are elaborate adornment. You will find huge paragraphs of padding that talk about literary theories, because one of the men is a professor of literature and very fond of James Joyce (who else?). You will also find a large number of pages filled with letters exchanged between our heroine, who, in the fullness of her years and with a couple of novels under her belt (and several unpublished ones), is still making a huge point of getting a masters in creative writing, and the school which is indulging in bureaucratic pettiness in awarding it to her. You will find paragraphs on the philosophical implications of love, marriage, and so on. And yes, you will find one party after the other. Desai clearly finds the party- full of the possibilities that stereotyped characters, inconsequential conversations, background music, alcohol and so provide-a convenient place to enact drama. There is the party with Farida’s 17- year- old lover, Darius, and his friends. There is the Chicago party where she meets her American husband, Horace, the literature professor. And there is the party to which her ultimate lover, the ageing Percy, takes her- and she faints at the doorstep! And there are several semi-parties thrown in, restaurant scenes, music hall scenes and so on.

All things considered, Farida seems to be quite a woman. She first lands up in Chicago as a young student and, in a few quick moves, latches up with Horace. She finds it a Little odd that his ex-wife, who has remarried, continues to hang around the house rather too often and also cooks nice meals for her ex-husband and his nubile new wife. (Where do these convenient things happen?) Nevertheless she carries on, from one miscarriage to another, writing magazine short stories, enjoying Chicago. Then one day, her professor husband confesses, in the most unlikely language, using the theories of deconstruction, that he has actually been sleeping with his ex-wife and has had a daughter while oblivious Farida was miscarrying all the time. Heartbroken, she returns to Mumbai. But she is a rather jolly heartbroken person, frequenting nightclubs in a miniskirt where she easily steals the spotlight by crooning with the band. Without further ado, she picks on the teenaged admiration of a boy exactly half her ago and with nary a thought for her family or his (both are supposed to be part of the reputation-conscious, status-conscious Parsi community_ seduces him in cold blood. To the extent that she agrees to a clandestine arrangement where she and the boy are living in a borrowed flat in the same building as his parents and is somewhat surprised when one of the neighbors tells the boy’s father. Just imagine, the indiscretion of apartment block dwellers who just cannot keep a secret! She dumps her young lover when, all in the space of a few fervent pages, his sister dies in a car crash, his mother comes into their bedroom and kicks her rump blue and black and his father decides that, what the hell, if my 17-year-old son can do it, then, dear lady, why can’t I? Do savour the father’s irresistible sales pitch: “Why not take the mighty oak from which the little acorn fell? Why take the sapling when you can have the trunk” “Back in Chicago, Farida, by the nearing an incredible 50 years, doesn’t waste much time. There are several uncounted, and mercifully underscribed, affairs with anonymous men and then the charming Percy, who not only gives her a job but also beds her, does not insist on marriage and also makes very good Chicken Monaco. Ah, yes, he also encourages her not to give up hope on her novel and voila! Nor only is the book published suddenly with a huge advance, but also translated into French.

Through all this rather exhausting activity, one searches, ultimately in vain, for at least a sense of space or time, memorable descriptions of Mumbai or Chicago from an author who has spent all his life in these two cities. But then, I suppose, one party is pretty much like another when boy meets girl. Nor is the reader left with a deeper understanding of the Parsi community, its unique culture its devotion to industriousness, its insularity. They all seem to be pictured, instead, as a westernized lots, betraying, divorcing, seducing – that is, when not partying. If nothing else, then perhaps some good sex scenes, given the title of the book. Some really literary erotic writing. Or some poetic, romantic passages. Well, judge for yourself. Here is a description of Farida, back in Mumbai from Chicago, where her heart has been broken: “…. Pink toenails in black toeless pumps, black miniskirt revealing naked knees swelling into juicy things, trim middle swelling into the lemon blouse, twin tips of her braless nipples swollen like stings, bifurcation of breasts in the décolletage,” Reminds you of geometry, no? Or take this description of wild, uninhibited sex: “Barely minutes after leaving the car they were locked again at the hip in bed, lubricated and glistening, sure of themselves again as they were with no other activity anymore, fitting like a jigsaw. They had perfected their art with a precision that would have won gold at an erotic Olympics. The first quick release almost didn’t count, except as an appetizer for the second and third courses, each becoming increasingly casual and exploratory and imaginative. They ran out of time before they ran out of energy or desire, shoring up a reserve as a teaser for the next encounter, thinking of what was to come before they were finished with what was, the only way they could manage what had to be, all encounters finally running together, the gaps in between best forgotten. “ I couldn’t figure out what that was-a soccer team’s strategy or an internal combustion engine.

This book will still stay on my bookshelf, but that’s because I like Amrita Sher-Gil.