Saturday, September 20, 2014

Love, longing and philanthropy in Parvati Sharma's Close to Home

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian. When writing about film, I often – too often perhaps – bring up Manny Farber’s “termite art-elephant art” formulation. Well, here’s a novel that I thought might be classified as good termite art]

Among the many carefully observed moments in Parvati Sharma’s novel Close to Home is one where the protagonist, a young woman named Mrinalini, is entertaining her maid’s little daughter Anjali with cartoon films. They are in Mrinalini’s room – her husband Siddhartha is also around – sitting together on the bed in front of the laptop, when the maid Beena comes in to check on the child. Mrinalini craned her neck to look up at Beena; mother and daughter had the same smile: willing to be pleased, then delighted. “See,” said Mrinalini, “it’s a cartoon. Sit?” She wasn’t sure where Beena would sit and counted on her declining the offer, which she did.

The notable things about this episode, and the larger scene it is situated in, include the suggestion that the class barrier separating the two sets of people in the room doesn’t quite apply to the little girl yet; Anjali, barely three and hence not a card-carrying citizen of one of the many countries adults create for themselves, can casually make the bed her own (though Siddhartha is a little concerned that she will get her heavily oiled hair on the pillows), but it would be an immediate, noticeable transgression if her mother were to sit on it. The scene also depicts the mixing and mashing of backgrounds and cultural reference points in a world where one can shift from watching kung-fu pandas (“too much in English” for this little girl) to watching an animated Ganesha (wherein an upper-middle-class woman might feel self-conscious when a servant’s child commands her to “do namoh” to the cartoon God) or listening to a bhajan about the infant Krishna. And there is the description “willing to be pleased, then delighted”, which lets us imagine Anjali and Beena, so happy to be in the unusual position of watching shiny images on a computer in this room – but also allows us to reflect that maybe this is just Mrinalini’s perspective, born of self-congratulation.

This slim, sharp book centres on a woman trying to fill a blank screen, at work and in life. As a writer, Mrinalini stresses over the empty word-files on her computer. As a person, she wants to prove – to herself and to others – that she cares, that she can make a difference, and perhaps that confronting discrimination in the real world is more meaningful than writing about it. But being well-off carries its own traps. Even with the best intentions, you may have to deal with the possibility that the poor aren’t just an amorphous mass of eyes brimming with tears of appreciation for the little things you do for them, the favours and kindnesses you dole out at your own convenience; they are just as complex as you are, they have their own capacities for resentment or pettiness, or for wanting more than you think they should be satisfied with. The ayah whose child you are self-consciously looking out for isn’t always going to be the grateful supplicant, she might turn out to be a shrill-voiced bitch who rants about you behind your back, accusing you of using her daughter as a toy. And there could be some truth in that charge.

These are some of the things this book “is about”, but to list them like this makes Close to Home sound ponderous and doesn’t adequately convey what a fun, fast-paced read it is. (It took me just three or four hours to finish it.) The seven chapter heads are lines that come together wittily to make up a little poem – the sort where “Jangpura Ext” can be made to rhyme with “vexed” – and the main narrative has its own rhythm and flow. It begins with a chapter set before Mrinalini is married – she is smoking a joint with her roommate Jahanara, who confesses her love for her. Here as elsewhere, Sharma uses long sentences with unfussy, elegant flair. (Mrinalini was so obviously delighted by this – the dotcom, though unstinting by way of motivational talk and pizza lunches, offered little real excitement, and Siddhartha only called on Sundays – and so eager with her questions and generous in her felicitations, that Jahanara, who had tensed after uttering the words I think I’m gay, had uncoiled and unfurled and unthinkingly discovered, in the time it took them to roll another, that she only ever wanted to tell Mrinalini all her secrets and fears, and the strength of her feeling being what it was, it must be, it had to be, reciprocated.) There is an eye for detail, for pithy observations about behaviour and body language – whether in a description of a character laughing “from fear and happiness”, or a long, seemingly indolent chat between two people where layers of desire, insecurity and awkwardness are revealed. (Mrinalini indulges Jahanara a little, they banter and speculate about a fantasy future together, it seems like harmless fun but the frothy surface is misleading, and it all ends with Jahanara accusing her friend of being insensitive. This is the set-up for much of what follows.)

Though an easy read, Close to Home is in some ways a hard-to-classify book, and this is true of its characters as well – which is probably part of the point. Mrinalini and Sidhartha are well-meaning people, potentially non-conformist in some ways (he gives up a job in banking – though shortly afterwards he lets his father settle him in a government job), but there is something synthetic about their conversations, the hip self-awareness mixed with naiveté. They are so lovey-dovey, so much in tune all the time, articulating their thoughts so clearly even when they disagree – and you just know they will have fantastic make-up sex (“I’ll make your world spin, baby”) just a few hours after a nasty, crippling fight – that I found them a bit annoying. But it would be too easy to say this book invites us to judge them wholesale, even though some passages seem to play out that way. One subplot has their tenant Brajeshwar, also an author, writing an “ethnographic memoir” in which he casts them as a bubble-gum couple who have superficial conversations about important things, and even patronisingly gives them the names of the lead characters in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge. There is some truth in this description, but counter-perspectives are immediately presented too, and we get to see the gaps in Brajeshwar’s own understanding (and later, his vulnerabilities as well).

All of which means that this story about the troubled relationships between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, and how philanthropy is so often about the giver rather than the beneficiary, should cut close to the bone for any privileged reader (and by “privileged” I mean anyone who has the means and ability to read this book in the first place) – even someone whose first instinct may be to see Mrinalini as a shallow dilettante. Possibly she is, but then possibly the best of us are too, forever struggling with the question that makes up the final chapter head: “Do you choose good or bad, or merely all right?"

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