Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
The southy-northy divide
ANCIENT PROMISES. By Jaishree Misra. 310pp. Penguin. Paperback, £6.99 - 0 14 028884 8.
Any Indian writer, particularly an Indian woman writer, who takes up the tale of a girl caught in family entanglements in verdant Kerala must feel the ponderous presence of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997). Jaishree Misra seems to have been unperturbed by that presence in telling, in her first novel, a straightforward, unassuming and, as the blurb warns us, "heartrending story of love and family loyalty".
Janu, the forthright narrator of Ancient Promises, is a young Malayali schoolgirl in Delhi, in love with a Punjabi schoolmate, Arjun. She comes up against racial and regional prejudices, the so-called "southy-northy" divide lurking below the surface in cosmopolitan Delhi. Arjun leaves for university in England, and Janu is packed off to Kerala. With a pragmatism that contrasts with her later yearning for her first love, she agrees to be married into a rich and traditional Malayali family dominated by women with thick swaying plaits, whose swishing silk saris hide sharp innuendo. Her Delhi upbringing, her service background and, above all, the indifference of her husband combine to ensure that Janu never really integrates into a society where success is measured in "houses, jewellery and Ambassador cars". When her daughter, Riya, is born with a learning disability, the formula for pathos is complete. Or almost.
Her first love, Arjun, returns, "without, fortunately, an English wife and her pot of tea", and Janu walks straight into his arms for a stolen afternoon of love in sunny Delhi. The rest of the novel unfolds like a Bollywood plot. Janu confesses to her husband and seeks a divorce. He plots and maneuvers, and puts her in a mental hospital. She seeks refuge in her old home with her mother and grandmother. The handicapped child is taken away by her father.
Finally, Janu wins a scholarship to England, where Arjun is still waiting, aged about twenty-eight, his hair inexplicably flecked with gray and laugh lines already on his face. There, Janu claims her allotted share of happiness, ninety-eight days and nights, the weekends when she steals away from her studies to be with him. She misses her daughter and asks a passing flock of geese to tell Riya that "the birthday card (the one with puppies on it) really means that I love her too". She returns to claim her child, bound by some ancient promise or unrequited debt,
perhaps from an earlier life; all such claims and counter-claims, she believes, are recorded somewhere and some day the accounts are drawn up.
The novel's sentimentality, syrupy at times, is alleviated by occasional bursts of detached observation and, more often, by evocative imagery. Misra captures the Delhi of three-wheelers, tiny Racold geysers and cold cement floors, a city of crumbling historic monuments and blazing gulmohar trees. And she brings to life Keral a with its moonlit backwaters and its swaying palm fronds; its jackfruits, jacaranda and jasmine; its powerful gods, munificent goddesses and cataclysmic monsoons. The highly emotional and heartfelt tone of the novel makes it sound like a true story, and in its bare essence, as the author helpfully reminds us at the end, it is.