A coming-of-age novel has become something of a rite of passage for debuting Indian writers in English. Which is all very well, except that going by the oeuvre, everyone growing up in this country over the past 40 years has led the same life. Consequently, we are being treated to the same story till we have sexual awakenings and dalliances with drugs coming out of our ears.
So yes, Urmila Deshpande’s debut novel, A Pack of Lies, checks all the boxes: aloof mother, absent father, adolescent sex and a super-needy protagonist that makes you glad your own teenage is behind you. Simultaneously, it makes you wish for a time when storylines didn’t echo author bios so closely. Consider this: “Urmila Deshpande lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with her family. Modelling, photography, editing and motherhood prepared her to write.” Replace the author’s name with that of her protagonist, and you pretty much have a summary of the book.
With no surprises in the story, it all boils down to the technique, and that’s where Deshpande scores. Spurning the conventional chapter break-up and adopting a non-chronological, daubing style, the author achieves a racy narrative. The unpretentious style works well for the chaotic life she charts: There’s a candour in the wild child episodes of the hash hunt in Manali—the book unfolds largely against the backdrop of the advertising world in the Mumbai of the 1980s, what did you expect—and the unapologetic man-hopping, but… And it’s a big but.
Ginny lives through multiple relationships, modelling success, a career switch-over behind the camera, riots, police raids, reunions with long-lost sisters, gruesome parental secrets, motherhood and much therapy, yet she remains untouched and unchanged from first page to last. Her friends have been replaced by family, but in essence she remains the little girl looking for love.
This major flaw could have something to do with the author’s—and, by extension, the protagonist’s—refusal to look Ginny’s mother in the eye. Most of Ginny’s issues are born in this thorny relationship, yet it is “resolved” in the most predictable fashion ever, when Ginny is about to become a mother herself. In contrast to the early scenes, when their confrontations—or the lack of them—touch raw chords, this sudden thaw towards the end undermines the very core of the book. In particular, the scene by the death bed, when difficult daughters encounter their mother’s fans and see a whole new side to their terror figure, has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, done to death.
But perhaps that’s making heavy weather of a book that, for all intents and purposes, reads like grown-up chick lit. Deshpande can be fun, fairly gripping reading if you don’t look deep—and that’s exciting news for her publishers.
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