Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
Wanting to be a star
IN BEAUTIFUL DISGUISES. By Rajeev Balasubramanyam. 246 pp. Bloomsbury. £14.99. TLS £10.99. 0 7475 4702 5
Towards the end of In Beautiful Disguises, Rajeev Balasubramanyam's first novel, the heroine says: "I was born a girl, but really I was a film star, but because I was a born a girl I had to go home to my brother, and my sister and my mother. Not to marry, but to fight." This contrived tale, struggling between the stereotypical and the unlikely, is about a teenage girl, trapped in a middle-class family in South India. Her burning ambition to become a film star in the mould of Audrey Hepburn is fed on several showings of Breakfast at Tiffany's. What she needs to escape is: a bullying,
whisky-drinking, surly father; a quiet, suffering mother cooking her way through life's travails; a foolish brother; a more dutiful sister; and a looming arranged marriage. An unlikely angel emerges in the form of the grandfather of her brother-in-law who (unbelievably) talks to her of the sexual obligations of marriage and helps her to leave home for the big city without her family's knowledge, so that she can experience life and prepare for stardom.
The heroine - by now one wishes she had a name - enters the household of Mr. Aziz and his French wife, as a maid. There are some more stereotypes here: the weak, well-meaning husband, incredibly kind to the maid; the tyrant of a foreign wife, harsh on the servants; the foreign guests at the parties who hate India while partaking of its best. Again, the story strains belief. She dines with Mr. Aziz and his wife at the big table on her first night, served by servants with whom she then begins to mop and clean and cook; Mr. Aziz shares confidences with her and takes her along when he buys gifts for his wife; she swigs champagne with Armand, the long-haired, languorous son of the house, and sleeps in the servants' quarters, where the gardener, whose son is dying, finds the time to drink, joke and make a pass at her.
To fill in some more pages, she visits the zoo, where she finds incredibly literate and sophisticated regular visitors, including a rich girl who comes to feed Orang-utans just for fun. One gets the feeling that the author does not really know the country that he writes about, or knows only some well-hidden pocket. Old relatives in India normally do not smuggle out young girls from conservative families; servants don't normally sit and drink brandy after parties as if they were in some aristocratic pantry straight out of
Wodehouse; and people don't become maids and animal feeders as if they were doing a summer internship.
The novel finally lurches to an end, but not before some final hiccups. Our heroine returns home after being caught asleep on Armand's bed by his mother. The family is reluctant to accept her back. Her television addict of a brother has turned spiritual and gone to an idyllic ashram with a predictable, blonde hippie in his arms. Finally, she enters a marriage arrangement to please her parents, and the husband turns out to be gay. Lost somewhere along the way is the desire to become a film star. Repeated allusions to Breakfast at Tiffany's, Pygmalion and the Mahabharata fail to lend the plot or characters any significant meaning. Balasubramanyam's language, gushing and gimmicky, doesn't help: "His face was a black sunset of pride and fury, stretching powerfully into the distance, shining with an irresistible force, straight from his blood, straight from his liver and stomach." There are too many generic references to the City, the Night and, of course, to Doing It. Perhaps a stronger editorial hand should have been there to help craft a more focused first novel. In the event, regrettably, In Beautiful Disguises must remain an unlikely tale, ordinarily told.