There is a place, somewhere between the complexity of highbrow literature and mindless prattle of chick-lit, where judicious stories of ordinary people can be told. Anita Nair slid into that place nine years ago when she published her breakout novel Ladies Coupe. Now, with Lessons in Forgetting, her fourth work of fiction, she is comfortably ensconced in her niche.
Meera, Nair’s protagonist in Lessons in Forgetting, is someone we all know—a neighbour perhaps, or an aunt. She is urban, educated and erudite. She is the mother of two teenagers and one of those women whose career is to be a corporate wife. Meera has no big ambitions for herself; she thinks all is well with her life. So when her husband leaves her, Meera is more surprised than sad. As things tend to happen in books, on the day her husband walks out of a party and before Meera realizes he has walked out of her life, she meets Jak.
Jak is someone we know too. An uncle or a friend’s cool father. He is an Indian-American, one of those who boarded the flight from Chennai as Krishanmoorthi and landed in Connecticut as Jak. He is an expert on cyclones, a divorcee and a father of two girls. His confusion is about cultures: He is cool enough to take on his daughter’s challenge and pierce his ear, but wears his mother’s diamond nose ring in his ear. His elder daughter came to India to study and became the victim of a mysterious attack that rendered her comatose. Just as Meera is forced to redraw the contours of her life, Jak is on a quest to find the real story behind his daughter’s attack.
As events spin around us, Nair gives us a look into the lives that we now lead in cities. She makes a statement about the fragility of the modern Indian marriage and the overwhelming challenges of raising our children in a milieu we no longer have a handle on. When Meera ponders about where exactly she went wrong as a wife, it reflects our incomprehension of the role we are expected to play as a partner. As Jak retraces his daughter’s path, we think along with him about how much freedom we should allow our children.
The realistic portrayal of Nair’s character is inducement enough for the reader to keep turning the pages. Nair flits about some peripheral issues and you are left guessing whether to read too much into them or too little. For example, Jak’s quest to learn about his daughter takes him to a small Tamil Nadu village where a large female infanticide racket thrives. It’s integral to the plot, yet Nair does not offer any sort of closure to it. And there are too many characters—Meera’s mother, grandmother, Jak’s aunt—each with their own backstory, whose sole purpose seems to be to distract you from the narrative.
But it is worth a read—and is a perfect fit for those in-between times when Salman Rushdie seems too much and Sophie Kinsella too little.