There is a fun way to read Namita Gokhale’s latest—as a series of not-so-cryptic clues to a Page 3 puzzle. Ved Anand, “the evergreen hero of Bollywood”, and Mondrian-inspired designers Bhoothika and Bhayanika flit and flutter through its pages. The heroine Priya is socially snubbed in favour of “Queenie Kwatra, the reigning Mumbai QB”. That’s either “queen bee” or “quarterback”; the text doesn’t elucidate and I have it on good report from the tabloids that the stalwart shoulders of the society original can sprout wings or hunker down as needed.
Cracking these cute ciphers is a game of noughts and crosses, predictable but good for giggles. It is also the only reasonable reading of a novel that has incidents and accidents, hints and allegations aplenty, but lacks the genre-fiction fundamental: a likeable protagonist.
Priya Kaushal is the middle-aged, previously middle-classed wife of a middling politico on the rise. The jacket copy says she “struggles valiantly with ‘social vertigo’, infidelity and menopause” while her friend chases “status, sex and Jimmy Choo shoes”. Easily inferred from this checklist of themes is that Priya: In Incredible Indyaa slots neatly in the final, worthy progression of chick-, mommy- and matron-lit.
Priya is tightly packed with nary a punch. Each cycle of a dozen-odd pages presents “issue” vignettes in rotation: a run-in with India’s underprivileged masses, a nostalgic encounter with the past, a collusion-collision with Delhi’s high society, a soft brush against wider social realities, a manufactured family incident, followed by a solipsistic rumination on all that’s happened.
The tale is told in the diarist’s account, which has a heritage extending past Bram Stoker’s Dracula and reaching closer to Priya’s niche in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. The choice of first-person narrator doubly weights the burden on Priya as a character.
In experimental fiction, that burden can be shrugged. Often, appealing first-person narrators, like Martin Amis’ Charles Highway, have appalling personalities.
Genre-fiction typically has more modest ambitions but Gokhale, who quotes Whitman and Eliot, strains at its bounds. And so instead of a coherent, congenial narrator we have a narrowly interpreted, flat rendering of the poetic precept, “I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
In one instance, there’s Priya declaiming the laudable if vapid sentiment, “It was enough, in that moment, to know and remember that not everybody had sold out and bought into the current myth of India Shining.” Soon after we have her discovering her husband’s suitcase stashed with insalubrious cash and the only plaint lodged is that it dispossesses her of her established custodianship of fungible funds.
The discovery of her husband’s infidelity causes no real marital breach, until Priya receives proof that his heart had been engaged. Fair, except she has earlier transgressed the marital bond with an older, adored beau. It’s not the morality that’s dubious, it’s the motivation. Priya is internally inconsistent to the point of being unpleasant.
Discrepancies pervade the novel, in the writing and the editing. As is obvious from the title, numerology with its handmaiden vowels is a central plot point. After the story draws deliberate attention to the specific spelling of our second lead, Pooonam’s name, it appears distractingly through the book with an arbitrary two “Os” or three. A friend Priya hasn’t run into for decades materializes unexpectedly no less than three times. It’s such a clunky deus ex machina, the ancient Greeks would have trouble suspending their disbelief.
Chronologies have a similarly capricious quality. “I’m getting married next week,” Pooonam announces and on this stated timeline, Priya’s son’s wedding is planned and executed, rumours of a cabinet reshuffle are realized, a hen night goes awry and breaks up a friendship, the Muslim driver’s missing son returns and finds new employment, there’s a hint at one of the twins’ homosexuality, a terrorist attack in Mumbai in which Priya’s long-term lover dies, a numerologist consultation, and an overnight retreat to Rishikesh with, naturally, the attendant epiphany.
The unevenness of Priya: In Incredible Indyaadogs it to its close, where we are served another glib truth foreshadowed on the jacket copy. The disappointment in its inanities and incongruities stems from Priya’s unwieldy scope. Raising a voice on a giant cross-section of concerns—abuse! sexuality! tradition! corruption! terrorism! Indyaa!—only reduces the lot to party chatter.
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