Tishani Doshi has many talents. Her collection of poems, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize for debut collections. Earlier this year, she enthralled viewers in London in the dance ballet, Sharira (the body), choreographed by the late Chandralekha, who had trained her. She writes about cricket. And now she has written an elegant novel, The Pleasure Seekers, which is an affectionate recalling of her parents’ marriage.
Doshi’s Welsh mother becomes Siân Jones here, who has escaped her small village for the bright lights of London, where she works at an office. Her Gujarati father, known only as “Babo” in the novel, is at the office, sent by his father for work experience with their business partners, and to study. Love happens, movingly and charmingly, and Siân welcomes Babo to her world. Babo plunges into the new life with relish, eating meat, drinking alcohol and breaking virtually every promise he had made to his doting family when he left Madras for London. His parents get wind of the budding romance and Babo gets the predictable cable, saying his mother is seriously ill. He rushes home only to find his passport taken away. But Babo rebels, breaking the heart of a young Gujarati girl they’ve decided he should marry (and who he liked once upon a time).
He triumphs over a challenge, and Siân adjusts to her new life in India with remarkable grace—the colours and flavours of India easily vanquishing whatever charms Britain offers, including its “meager and ancient” light.
Doshi begins the novel with a dream sequence, which points towards a magic realist treatment of the kind associated with many authors from the subcontinent. But the prose quickly turns gentle and pleasant, flowing calmly like the Adyar, and without the pyrotechnics that characterize the genre. Her portrayal of Babo’s family is exquisite, in particular the grandmother who lives in Gujarat; the inquisitive curiosity of Indians when they have a foreigner in their midst—such as Siân—is presented with great charm.
The Pleasure Seekers: Penguin India, 320 pages, Rs499.
Doshi has called the novel “a love letter to my parents”, and that it is. But it also shows, meticulously, how love is even and mellow, and not loud and pulsating like in a Hindi or Tamil film. Life is like that; it ebbs and flows: There are heartaches and heartbreaks, but there are also uplifting moments, and we encounter them as we meander through life. It is when the story races forward, to the life of Bean, Siân’s and Babo’s daughter, that we plunge into the rough and tumble of a fast-paced city and modern romance, where sexual attraction and relationships are not necessarily meant to correlate with enduring love.
The recreation of the placid Madras of half a century ago is evocative; the more frenetic contemporary world looks psychedelic in comparison. But there is a uniting, common thread, of the empowered woman. It took courage for a young woman to uproot herself and move to India at that time; Doshi lets Siân’s actions speak, revealing how love can conquer anything.
As Bean embarks on her own adventures, her heart exploring the world around her, it shows the ephemeral nature of modern relationships. They offer pleasure, they may not endure, but if that’s what the pleasure seeker wants, so be it. In the end, love remains an individual quest; no wonder it is a many-splendoured thing.
Salil Tripathi writes a fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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