Novels set in the urban Indian workplace can sometimes make the literary instruction to “write what you know” seem overly optimistic. The minutiae of client meetings, project management and inter-office politics probably have great novelistic potential, but books such as By the Water Cooler are no confirmation of that.
Parul Sharma’s book is an anomaly among the rash of “MBA novels” currently flooding the book stores, because it’s about women, not men, being bored at work. Mini and Tanya have hotfooted it out of their advertising agency jobs to land up at a fashion enterprise where “corporate stardom is only a few Powerpoint slides away”. It is not; perhaps because there is no such thing as corporate stardom. Nonetheless, Mini keeps going, avoiding showdowns with unpleasant superiors, getting out of scrapes and finding romance, with some help from her quirkier colleagues.
Sharma’s forte is the zinger; her dialogue carries the story forward with comic verve, although her style can sound clunky sometimes (who uses “the latter” in direct speech?). She can write characters who are likeable even when they’re bored, which saves them from being fatally boring. Still, the light-heartedness may collapse if readers ask “why?” at crucial points. Why is this an important story? Why is Mini special? Why is her boss so unreasonable? Why is there so much photocopying? But ours not to reason why, and By the Water Cooler will be an engaging read for those who can cope with that in art as well as life.
Homeless in Karachi
Pakistani author Bina Shah’s third novel, Slum Child, set in Karachi, follows the uncertain fortunes of a bright nine-year-old girl. Laila’s is a small world in a big city, but doomed to unpredictability because she is poor, and she comes from the Punjabi Christian community of Issa Colony, far away from the gracious tranquillity of the neighbourhood where Laila’s mother works as a housemaid. After her family is torn apart over the death of her elder sister, she runs away and works in one of the big homes as a servant, which is accompanied by fresh tribulations.
Laila’s story will seem relevant to most readers on the subcontinent, where the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, as well as an awareness of that inequality, is intensely familiar. National differences may play out at higher political and economic levels. Life for the urban poor, whether in Mumbai or Karachi, has graver commonalities. Shah stakes this broad canvas on Laila’s close, first-person narrative, and succeeds for the most part in bringing her milieu, and her characters, to vivid life. Her compassionate authorial voice is free of the Jamesian iciness with which, by contrast, her compatriot Daniyal Mueenuddin writes of rural labourers. Her narrative may not achieve the startling clarity of his stories, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.