Originally published in the BusinessWorld Online. Here is the link: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/politics-of-society-life/394770.0/page/0
Priya Kaushal is “just an ordinary housewife. A woman who has climbed up the ladder, step by determined step, with her husband’s unexpected luck helping things along.” She is immersed in the political and social milieu of the capital, where “everybody in Delhi knows everybody-everybody who matters, that is. As a jumped-up, middle-class girl from Mumbai I still cannot figure out these equations. Seek out the current lot of ‘useful’ people, scorn the hangers-on and despise those who might need you. That’s the formula for Delhi social networking.” But she is somebody now. “My husband Suresh Kaushal is the Minister of State for Food Processing, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Canneries. Maybe it’s not an ATM ministry, like telecom or power, but agriculture is important to modern India, and Food Processing is crucial to agriculture. That’s what Suresh says.” They have twin sons Luv and Kush, who are diametrically opposite to each other in their personalities. Luv is laid back, who believes he is destined to be an artist and “challenging his creativity”. Kush is an ex-investment banker turned budding politician who “knows how to grovel. It’s an essential skill in party politics.” To complicate matters, Lenin or Avinendra from Chhatisgarh returns to Priya’s life. He is an activist fighting for the release of Binayak Sen from jail, by proceeding on endless fasts, whereas his successful politician-wife, Geeta Devi, is achieving prominence. They become closely intertwined with Priya’s family, when her son Luv falls in love with Lenin’s daughter Paromita.
All through the novel, Priya is confident that she “must act the part, and be supportive” of her husband, irrespective of whether their values meet on the same plane or not. For instance, her husband carries a residual loyalty to the idea of the Indian Woman, the Sacred Sati Savitri, and his advice to their son while looking for prospective brides was that “your mother is a True Indian Woman, the personification of a Bhartiya Nari. If I died, I very much doubt if she would want to continue living! Would you, Priya?” Priya is appalled. “My jaw dropped. What could I possibly say? Tell him it would be like reincarnation without dying? But no, I am an Indian woman. I stared at him speechlessly as he continued, a dreamy look playing upon his plump, superficially distinguished face.” To say this at a time, when honour killings and sati are rampant in “this new India, half dream, half nightmare, from which we might collectively awake”.
But it is also an India where women like Geeta Devi stand “tall in every sense. How times change, how life changes, how people change. I could never have imagined the Geeta of yore, the subjugated small-town bride of my friend and rakhi brother Lenin, would transmute into this power-savvy politico. Of course she had a determined chin even then, but the cast of a jaw is not enough to propel someone into the political stratosphere. Her father had been an ex-chief minister, I recalled.” This is the same country, where mammon is god, borne at any cost, even violence. Priya is out shopping with her social butterfly friend Poonam who “tried on the latest style in outsize diamond danglers, all astronomically priced, completely out of range as far as I am concerned. Her hair got into her eyes, and she had to take off her Bulgari shades to readjust it. There was an ugly swelling in her perfectly made-up face, the blue and black bruises blending in perfectly with her shimmering green shadow. I turned away, pretending not to have noticed.” Maybe as Priya expresses it so neatly, “A lie in the interest of one’s family is not an untruth, but one’s dharma. As an Indian mother, I am aware which side of the truth my duties fall.”
Violence exists at every level of society. The insidiousness of communalism makes its presence felt even in the life of Ghafoor the driver. Yet, Priya feels “safe with Ghafoor Bhai. Maybe it’s the Bombay influence-Bombay, before it was Mumbai. The city used to belong to everyone, and Allah’s chosen were visible everywhere, as the rest of us. In Delhi one tends to see them only in Purani Dilli and Nizammuddin, unless they are one of us, if you know what I mean.”
Priya: In Incredible Indyaa is about the life of Paro, a generation after Priya. It is Namita Gokhale at her best, with her tongue-in-cheek genuflection to all the activisim of the 1980s and early 1990s-feminsim, communism, Maoists, revival of Sati, honour killing etc. Post-liberalisation, it changed, but it did leave its indelible impact on society. The other sad fact that she stresses is that social mobility is still important. This is a novel that cannot be dismissed lightly. Some of the most interesting debates and documentation of capturing a moment in time are being done by women writers, but with confidence about the changing trends. A book like this demands of it a sequel, preferably an annual affair?
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant and literary consultant