For Indians who can write in English but aren’t investment bankers or software professionals, not writing a novel is now probably like not having a Facebook account. And just as Facebook status messages can be easily grouped into genres—where I am/what I’m eating; angst/heartbreak; spiritual/humorous/banal one-liners; spam—so can the novels by these must-write-a-book authors.
• Individual Caught In Momentous Historical Event
• Discovery Of Self’s/Mother’s/Father’s Guilty Secret
• Actually A Love Affair With A City
• Immigrant Marriage
Now add to this compulsion the fine writing skills that academic programmes around the world in general and the US in particular inculcate and the result is, inevitably, the sensitively written novel that goes nowhere. Somehow, the writer of such a novel seems to be propelled by first, a desire to write a novel, and only then looks for an idea big enough, a story rich enough, a cast of characters intriguing enough.
The Prayer Room: HarperCollins India, 382 pages, Rs 350.
Unfortunately, debutant Shanthi Sekaran—born and brought up in the US—slips into this mould with her novel The Prayer Room, originally published in the US in 2009, and now in an Indian edition. Her writing deserves a unique story, not a familiar saga of the woman who suddenly discovers that her marriage seems to hold no meaning and embarks on a journey to discover herself.
In this case, the journey leads Vijaya aka Viji—married under the compulsion of middle-class decency to British scholar George Armitage after several nights of passion in sultry Madras (now Chennai), and now the mother of triplets—back to her homeland and to the inevitable locked-away secrets. Except it’s not clear how this journey changes anything for her, besides offering the almost mandatory sexual liaison along the way.
Eventually, there is the hastily and clumsily induced crisis that is supposed to provide a resolution, but only makes you feel relieved that you don’t need to know more about these people’s lives. In fact, content is a continuous casualty in this novel replete with attractive, but disparate, ideas.
One of these involves the dialogues Viji conducts with the key people in her life who have died—lively and full of possibilities, these exchanges could have taken the story in exciting directions, but aren’t exploited suitably. The prayer room of the title, which appears in three versions—one in Viji’s US home and two back in Madras—is the scene of these exchanges. Given that the book is named for this space, they should have surely played a pivotal role in the unravelling of the plot.
Like this trope, the supporting cast that Sekaran has put together is more interesting than the principal characters. Stan, Viji’s widowed father-in-law with an active sexual appetite, is one of them. His is not the central story, but he is an appealing flesh-and-blood counterpoint to the far paler ideas that George and Viji signify. The triplets Avi, Kieran and Babygirl—though seen only through their parents’ eyes for the most part—nevertheless come through as people who could have had a bigger role than they do in the relationship within the rest of the family.
If there is one stand-out element in The Prayer Room, it is the accuracy with which it identifies the detachment with which people often lead large parts of their lives, immersed in a sequence of activities but never really involved in the existence that they add up to.
But this is a path well travelled by literature, and a new journey on this road must offer new sights and sounds, fresh insights and experiences. Lacking those, the novel remains well-crafted and well-intentioned, but bereft of the uniqueness that you will remember the next morning. Just like a good dinner.
Arunava Sinha is currently translating works of political fiction by Samaresh Basu and Samaresh Majumdar.
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