Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What India’s middle class does not want to see

  • Vandana Singh-Lal’s debut novel is inspired by the real-life story of two sisters who chose to starve themselves
  • A dark and disturbing Delhi noir, it brings out the apathy of India's middle class towards confronting harsh realities

In 2011, two starving sisters were found in a flat in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. They had decided to voluntarily starve themselves after their parents died and their only brother moved away. They rebuffed all efforts by neighbours to help them; eventually, the neighbours gave up. Despite medical treatment, the older sister died.

Vandana Singh-Lal’s debut novel So All Is Peace borrows this disturbing real-life incident and adds to it. In her story, the sisters are twins, Layla and Tanya, living in modern Delhi. Why would women with money in the bank starve themselves? What makes women—and it’s mostly always women—retreat from the world?

“The incident stuck in my head," says Singh-Lal, “The society we live in is so connected in many ways by technology, but also disconnected. If you have a mental condition, or break the rules of society in any way, you are completely on your own."

The novel begins with a nonsense verse from the British writer and artist Edward Lear, the inspiration for the title: “I was much distressed by next door people who had twin babies and played the violin; but one of the twins died, and the other has eaten the fiddle—so all is peace." This sets the tone for what follows.

Singh-Lal’s novel is a deft jab at middle-class complacency, the notion that bad things only happen to other people. Early in the novel, the sisters’ mother comments on the 2003 heatwave deaths in Paris, where elderly people died lonely deaths because no one thought of checking on them. “We may not be perfect," she says. “Our streets may be dirty and we may go to potty in the open, but we take care of each other. Something like this can never happen in India." Her words come back to bite her.

Who: Singh-Lal has a degree in environment and forestry, and her chequered work history includes stints in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, as an adviser to the New Zealand government, and as a documentary film director. Ostensibly, none of this had any connection to this book. But she says her conservation experience helped in ways that are not apparent. “Nature is a great teacher. It helps you see the big picture." Singh-Lal’s scientific background also helped her research the science of starvation: the reasons why people starve themselves. Without giving anything away, this is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. It also helped her explore various conditions: twin-ship, grief, loneliness.

What: Singh-Lal wisely keeps her canvas small, all the better to convey the stifling atmosphere of the posh flat where the sisters coop themselves up. The conservative residents’ welfare association which rules the sisters’ lives is a character in itself. The complex has been renamed and given the fancy name Bellevue Boulevard but of course everybody calls it by its downmarket older name, “Krishna Colony". “Housing societies in India are a fascinating new development. You live as part of a community, but the minute you transgress, you are not a part of it any more," says Singh-Lal.

As the smug president of the residents’ welfare association, Sanjay Deol, says when asked if he is not responsible for the actual welfare of the residents, “Two women were living alone after the death of their father and mother—very sad state it was. Par phir woh akeli auratein thi. How can I zabardasti make them talk to me if they don’t want to (they were living alone. How could I force them to talk to me)?" Deol sums up the callousness of Indian middle-class society, its refusal to see anything it does not want to see, its propensity for bullying the weak.

Meanwhile, jaded journalist Raman is assigned the story as “a human interest" piece, and finds himself losing his objectivity as he investigates the twins. Raman sees a similarity to the Aarushi Talwar murder case (the double murder of a young girl and a domestic worker that rocked Noida in 2008), that other polarizing middle-class crime. “It does not matter if you are angry, just keep your voice down because ‘what will the neighbours think?’" he says of the Delhi flats which conceal untold horrors.

Singh-Lal was also fascinated by The Two Sisters, the iconic painting in the Louvre museum in Paris by the French painter, Théodore Chassériau. The painting shows two sisters, who, at first glance, appear identical. But a second look reveals that one sister looks slightly more dominating. The painting plays an important part in the novel.

Why: Read this novel for a fresh look at an old theme: how Indian women fight in vain for space in the world and then shrink into themselves to avoid occupying more than a tiny footprint. The sisters go from being the cossetted belles of their community to having to negotiate the outside world on their own.

There is a dichotomy in how Indian women are brought up, says Singh-Lal. “We are brought up on world literature, global ideas and the notion that we can do anything we want, and then we have to go out on the streets of Delhi and deal with reality. There is additional nuance when women interact with the world. Men, even the most liberal men, don’t get this."

For the most part, the prose is taut and crisp, though the overlong paragraphs, sometimes stretching to two pages, make for tough reading in parts. A long monologue on women’s safety by Layla does not quite work, and hinders the pace of the narrative. Another chapter, where Tanya talks about how vulnerable women are when they step out of their cocoons, titled “Womanhood. Splat", is overwrought and ever so slightly maudlin. “Why hadn’t we been prepared for it? Why did we need to protect our faces, our curves, our protrusions, our caverns?" laments Tanya. Deepak, Layla’s wily lover, is almost cartoonishly villainous. A pivotal character, many of his actions seem unconvincing and over the top.

Nevertheless, this is an assured and confident debut, and a worthy addition to the ranks of Delhi noir.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Twitter - @kavitharao

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