Like those posters we used to stick to hostel doors and PG rooms (and which now find place on discussion boards and social networking profiles), this book should carry a warning: “Beware all ye who enter here”, for this is not an extension of The Compulsive Confessor.
On their toes: Can Madhavan’s book replicate the Sex and the City model of chick-lit in India?
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s hugely popular blog (850,000 hits over four years, according to some reports) spun off this, her debut book, for sure but — unlike The Waiter whose www.waiterant.net led to the recent New York Times best-seller Thanks for the Tip: Confessions of a Cynical Waiter — her protagonist-narrator Arshi is not eM, her blog persona. The basics are identical: “twenty-something, single, female… with a large group of friends and who goes out for drinks pretty regularly”. But that’s pretty much where it ends.
With that out of the way (cheap-thrills seekers and trolls, read no further), it’s easier to focus on You are here. The title comes from those big schematics found at malls and metro stations and Arshi’s life at this juncture, a month short of her 26th birthday, comprises a dead-end job, a bully of a boss, a super-understanding mother, a father tucked away in the US with an American wife he married at some unspecified time in the past, a vast friends’ circle and a series of boyfriends. The stuff, you’d think, of any 25-year-old life, with possible tweaks in the family situation.
That, actually, becomes an issue very quickly into the novel. There’s so little that’s new or insightful or even witty (let alone funny, bitchy or acerbic, as the blog frequently is) that the first 100 pages feel like a series of digressions that fill out the minutiae of a 20-something’s life: the first crush, the friends’ get-togethers, alcohol consumed on the sly and then in the open, the first pay cheque, male friends who want to be lovers, lovers who want to be friends (okay, I made that one up), image issues, the first time she does it.
Wait, at last we have something happening here. Sex is still something of a taboo in IWEF (Indian Writing in English Fiction), and this, gasp, has been written by a 26-year-old! And she talks about losing her virginity at 18, with someone she’s pretty sure even at that moment she’s not in love with! And then, she actually smokes a cigarette! And she establishes a pattern of post-coital behaviour! OMG, is it autobiographical? (Disclaimer: this reviewer has no knowledge of the author’s sex life, but we did share a cubicle wall once upon a time — and that’s how I know the resignation drama, in which Arshi quits her job at a moment’s notice, is based in reality.)
Ironically, Khushwant Singh, the grand old man of Indian sex-writing (well, not counting Vatsayan) summed up the expected reaction best in his column earlier this month: “If the author were my granddaughter, I would have been highly proud of her achievement. But I doubt if I would have admitted that she was related to me.” In a way, it’s rather sad that the publishers tried so hard to cash in on the popularity of Madhavan’s blog, which draws eyeballs largely because of its honesty with respect to alcohol and the opposite sex, superbly packaged in real-time language.
The prurient hard-sell undermines You Are Here for what it really is: A coming-of-age story that, with some merciless editing, could have been a slim, poignant slice of that fleeting time between adolescence and adulthood, between obsessing about what others think of you and what you think of yourself.
The pity is that Madhavan shows every sign of being able to master that precipice: The novel picks up considerably in the second half and concludes magnificently.
The last scene, as Arshi has to tear herself away from putting up marigold garlands at her best friend’s wedding to accept a call from the man-of-the-moment, perfectly captures the innocence and arrogance of youth. You imagine her stretching up to loop a string of flowers around a doorway, the sun on her face and a future ahead of her — and you are quite able to forgive the belly-ache she has subjected you to.
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