I was skeptical about the appeal that this title might have held for me. However, it seemed like serious literature, and not just some flashy buzzwords and “tailored-to-a-specific-audience” clichés that plague the modern day pop lit scene here in India, so I dived into it with an open mind.
First impressions: a mental sigh of relief as characters are actually being fleshed out with some importance given to what one might call minutiae. This was the first sign that what I was going to be reading wasn’t just some purely <g data-gr-id="40">plot based</g>, <g data-gr-id="41">set piece</g> driven, “casual” story that reads more like a trimmed down Bollywood script. Grateful for the added dimension, I found myself getting, rather easily, gripped. It’s basically what people mean when they say, “can’t put it down”.
Onwards: The pace of the book will hit you like a soulful guitar solo playing somewhere in the background on a pleasantly chilly night while you warm yourself with a thick blanket and glass of wine. It sets the mood in an absolutely inconspicuous way, bringing to mind a feeling of vividness and revelry, yet, with an underlying comfort akin to snugness.
The stage set with the back stories of the two protagonists being out in the open, the mid section of the book wastes no time bringing important elements of the plot together coherently and cohesively. Kalpana and Vasundhara, by now, have been revealed to us as believable, strong, protagonist worthy characters and are now heading (unknowingly) into a stage in both their lives where things are going to change, perhaps forever, and quite eventfully.
They both grapple between needs and desires, the practical and the indulgent, without sounding like <g data-gr-id="50">air heads</g> going through a run of the mill <g data-gr-id="49">mid life</g> crisis. Their dilemmas are genuinely intriguing, and the very hearts of them are hidden in a veil of mystery that Manika Lal conjures up behind the scenes quite well. There is no baiting, prodding or cheap tricks employed to give the reader obvious “hints”.
Enter The Men: In such a <g data-gr-id="36">female centric</g> story, can the male characters stand on their own? In this novel, yes! They are treated with realism and detail, and not just made to behave in a stereotypical way. The motivations and actions of the male characters are never, <g data-gr-id="47">simply,</g> because they are men, but because of their complex nature as human beings. Prince, Kalpana’s seemingly distant <g data-gr-id="46">husband</g> and Murari, Vasundhara’s underachieving father, are two examples of male characters done brilliantly, especially during the events leading up to the book’s climax.
Final Act: By now, I was quite entrenched in the lives of these characters. A couple of chapters from the viewpoints of other characters, such as a protagonist’s mother and from the mysterious “Aakash”, Vasundhara’s now disappeared brother, have really set this story up for an intense finale.
There are some great twists as well, but these are tastefully done and are not essential, plot driving elements. They are mainly used for, in a way that this book consistently does well, character building. The end of the book encapsulates the story quite smoothly, and also establishes the main characters as more than ready for a future sequel.
Final Comments: I’m glad I read this book, because it not only tells a great story, but is driven by its characters in a way that most modern Indian pop literature isn’t. The author, Manika Lal, doesn’t shy away from developing even minor characters with realism, exactitude and dare I say, an intentionally ambiguous aura of mystery (see Prince’s Mother and Murari). The settings, both the rural and the urban, are done simplistically, painting an adequate picture without trying to get a specific message or agenda across.
Conclusion: Nowadays, authors are keen to create stories and characters that are as relatable as can be. In this quest, they see depth, detail, authentic emotion (and the possibility of writing a book more than 200 pages), as mere obstacles. Lal, in this case, has embraced those very aspects of quality storytelling, and made them natural conduits through which the tale of Kalpana and Vasundhara gets told. Not only is this a bold, brave stroke, but when done well, as she has, will ensure that this story will stand the test of time.
Pick up this book. I would definitely call it essential reading.