02 May 2011

The Vague Woman's Handbook by Devapriya Roy

Author: Devapriya Roy
Pages: 343 pages
Price: 199
Publishers: Harper Collins
Year of Publishing: 2011

Devapriya Roy's effervescent debut novel that has so much going for it is far less about vague women and odd balls than the title suggests. The protagonists meant to be vague but charming, are in fact your everyday urbane, working woman -- clueless about directions, messing up their credit bills, obsessing about losing weight and resolutely planning to turn into a new leaf every day.

The narrative is really about two literary buffs and the quirks that come with that territory. The fact that they have careers centered around books is not an incidental detail by any means, because many of their oddities, characteristics, motivations, responses are all acutely driven by their literary bent of mind. Practically every other page has a reference to a book or an author or a quotation. The setting itself is an imagined place called Academy of Literatures in Delhi where talk revolves around authors, lit events and conferences between cups of tea and chocolate cakes. So there's a 'meta' element here, a book world within a book, which should delight some of the more avid, serious readers of English literature.

The other interesting aspect here is the older women-younger women friendship that is quite a common occurance actually between females who share a certain emotional /or intellectual wavelength, though it's generally taken to be an anomaly. It hardly gets spoken about, and much less has been covered in popular fiction, which is why, Devapriya's narrative feels relatable and fresh.

Without much doubt, this is an immensely enjoyable novel, with its sumptuous descriptions and iridescent wit spread over 343 pages. There's a certain heartiness in the writing, a bounce and zing, that keeps the narrative tip toeing with nimble ease. The chick-lit elements are all there of course, but it manages to acquire an edge that should make it perfectly readable for everyone.

The novel is then about two women, each at a different stage in life, finding a kindred spirit in their literary pursuits and complimentary natures. Sharmila aka Mil, a 22 year old has just married her college sweetheart, Abhimanyu Mishra, a handsome, scholarly young man, with a penchant for somewhat obscure academic interests. Mil is a literature student, with all kinds of delicious hopes that ride with such a career path. Maybe a course in Cambridge, conferences abroad...

The other protagonist is Indira, 50ish, a senior government officer at the Academy of Literatures and a single mom to a teenage son and daughter. Indira is unassertive and tends to take an ostrich-like approach to many of her problems. She mismanages her finances and frequently finds herself in a maze of bank debts. On the other hand, Mil - while blissfully married - is frustrated with their meagre and irregular earnings and more particularly, her estrangement with her parents back in Calcutta over her marriage. She’s also ambitious and doesn't want her career to slip amidst all the heart-burn. Nothing really dramatic happens in the novel, and yet their daily struggle with its little ups and downs -that seems monumental and irresolvable on a given day- keeps you hooked.

Like most first novels, this one too seems heavily autobiographical and Devapriya essentially enumerates her sensations and emotions to different things around her. It works because Devapriya has great flair and style and she gets into the workings of a woman's mind quite wonderfully.
The below paragraph occurs when Abhimanyu and Mil have an feisty argument over finances and the attitude of their respective parents.

"The fact that Abhi was pointedly left out of the phone calls bothered Mil immensely. But when he brought it up, it made her furious. The mind is a complex zone - one loves and hates and defends the same people interchangeably all the time. You feel X about Y. But to Z you cannot reveal that you feel X; on the contrary, in front of Z, you highlight the feelings of X1 for B."

Don't look for anything terribly deep in the novel though. This is clearly a feel-good book above everything else, which gets into fairy-tale mode every now and then. The author realises she's created a near perfect couple in Mil and Abhimanyu and tries stacking the odds against them by adding a spot of grey. But it's mostly full of cutsie scenes and can't escape the clichés of young romance.
Yet, the narrative stays gripping, because the plot points are all interesting. The Mil-Abhimanyu quarrel over his finances, ending with the couple making up feels extremely tender. The chapter where Mil meets her fashionable mother-in-law is another high-point in the book.

Indira is a well-etched character, though her marital history is left somewhat vague and inconclusive. Mil at 22 seems a bit too young to be inhabiting the character the author creates for her.

But these are niggles really, and this is a jaunty ride that stays perfectly on course, teeming with piquant details. Devapriya, herself an MA and Mphil from JNU is a huge literary buff and that passion comes gleaming through the book.


All of 26 years, Devapriya Roy speaks about her debut book and her next ambitious venture with her writer-husband called The Heat And Dust Project, a book on travels across India

1) This is a question which perhaps all writers hate to answer. But it's hard to imagine any first book that is not autobiographical. The Vague Women's Handbook distinctly seems to mirror experiences close to you. Isn't it? What kind of challenges did you encounter in this process, where you had to fictionalise many autobiographical details. What approach did you take, where you possibly had some real-life person in mind, but were obliged to protect the source? Also, do you believe all fiction is mostly autobiographical, one way or the other?

Milan Kundera once said that characters are not born, like people, of a woman, but of a “possibility”. I find this a very helpful insight. When I became best-friends with the fabulous Gitanjali Chatterjee who happened to be a fair number of years – 28 to be precise – older than me, it was out of that possibility that the Vague Woman’s Handbook happened. Mil is not me and Indira is not Gitanjali, but the essence of their friendship is a lot like what we share. And this is not uncommon either. My mother had gone back to graduate school when I was about 17, and did her M Tech with young people who were a little older than I was. She had become very close to one of the girls she studied with. My publisher Karthika said that at one point when she was in university, she had this friend she spoke about a lot at home –so her mother invited the friend over. Subsequently, her mum said in great surprise, “But your friend’s my age!”
There are several elements that I “borrow” from my life and the lives of several who have had the misfortune to come in borrowing distance of me! I got married to Saurav absurdly early, like Mil did. But what’s funny is that this is a kind of family tradition – my parents did too, and my grandparents. So the economic realities of a young marriage is something that I had always thought was worth writing about – especially in an age as consumerist as ours is, when one is bombarded with images of glossy homes, designer honeymoons and event-managed weddings all the time. But the drama of estrangement was a borrowed one; however, in India, one still doesn’t have to look too far to find stories of parental disapproval. As for the credit card related escapades, let us say, I have had slight experience in the department but am a very respectable law-abiding citizen now, who is courted by a number of banks!

It’s true that most first novels are autobiographical; but the challenge I think is in converting autobiographical or personal impulses into the story of the characters, when it becomes something else. I’ve had emails from several readers who have loved the book, and asked me how on earth have I written about them! Because, said one girl from Bombay, she is Mil and her fiancĂ© is very Abhi-ish. There is an Indira Sen in Calcutta whose friends have written to me saying that they are in shock that there can be more of her! It’s like a giant circle of intertextuality, inter-experientiality, sisterhood and meaning-making.

2) Tell us something about your narrative strategy. Did you give the first person v/s third person choice any thought, or this was always how you wanted it to be?

Oh, you’re absolutely right – I did think of the first person narrative in the beginning. In fact, that seems to be the favourite choice for a lot of chick lit. But then, finally, I didn’t find it working too well for the story I was attempting to tell. This book explores the relationship between Indira and Mil more, but as often through suggestions and gestures – how gradually the nuances in their language change as the friendship deepens – than words. Thus I settled for a third person narrative that would do greater justice to this aspect, but an over-the-shoulder one, which, thus, is empathetic to Mil and Indira and records much of their musing, from their point of view. I thought that the third person narrative offered a unique coupling of the coming-close and moving-away strategy; I did not want the narrative to completely become an I-centric thing which can tend to get rather shallow and self-absorbed though arguably funnier.

3) I know the plot needed Mil and Abhimanyu to be very young - because that is afterall the central reason for their estrangement with the parents - but i got the feeling that Mil at 22 sounded like a 26-27 year old, especially scenes where she admonishes Indira etc. Were there any doubts in your mind about Mil's age and whether she could be expected to pull off some of the things in the story without it seeming like a stretch?

I know exactly what you mean – but that is precisely my point. Mil does these things consciously because she is painfully young-but-trying-to-appear grown up. When we see Mil as she is, we find her hysteria and meltdowns and vagueness in general believable because she is too young to handle what life has thrown up. But when we see her with Indira, and she is being all pert and theoretically superior and full of lectures, she is being a grown-up the way children sometimes do, donning the clothes and shoes of elders . That is the beauty of Mil and Indira’s relationship – Indira allows Mil to do her grown-up act with the affection of the sensitive towards the young, of not disrupting their little drama. And that is why Mil is able to flower in Indira’s presence. This is the chief thing that the parents have a problem with – Mil and Abhi’s extreme youth; so sub-consciously Mil is reacting to that. Again, the self-assuredness of Mil (her confidence that the credit card things will sort themselves out, the seminar paper will get selected, and so on) is what 22 year olds still have, though by the time they grow older, true maturity ought to distill it out of them.

4) Tell us something about your next book - The Heat and Dust project that you are doing with your husband, Saurav Jha. What writing approach are you taking with that, and how has the experience been so far?

It is a travelogue – a funny hysterical sort of a travelogue about journeying through India on a very very tight budget (500 a day for bed and board), but it would also engage with various books on India that have been authored by mostly foreign writers in English – from Naipaul to Patrick French and Dalrymple – which attempt to make sense of India. But in addition to being by Indians, it is also meant for Indians – especially, young Indians, if they would care to read it.
Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries might be called one of the big inspirations (Lol!). Without the motorcycle, that is.
 Cliched though it sounds, we were excruciatingly tired of the rhythms of the desk-jobs and the expectations that middle class “respectable” life throws on people. There was a lot of unresolved angst about modern-day life and its imperatives for our generation that impelled us to take this journey. We hoped that meaning and clarity might emerge through this mammoth undertaking as it sometimes does. The traffic, the desk jobs, the housework, the long queues, the grocery shopping, the cleaning (and the non-cleaning) of quarters. But it was hardly easy to actually bring everything together and take the jump from fantasizing about this idea to actually doing it. Putting all our meager savings into this journey – and what it represented – meant an extraordinary amount of pressure too! Because this is our life, and giving up jobs and what they represent, is hardly as romantic as it might seem initially.
 At another level, we were also tired of hearing studio experts debating the changing nature of our country, given that many of these studio experts belong to the highest echelons of society and, if you forgive our frankness, are often divorced from ground level truths. We wanted to see the land for ourselves, meet those of our brother and sister Indians we might ordinarily not have met, chat with them, swap stories.  
We combined these two things into this insane but hopeful “project”. That's how it came about.
This book is a lot about our generation as also inheritances from our predecessors.
So, we wanted to turn around the concept of meaning-making too! Usually, a book is written in solitude and only engages with the reader once it has been published. However, given the technologies available today it seemed possible that this act of writing, apparently one given to grave solitariness, could be turned on its head into a much more meaningful collaborative process wherein the readers are involved right from the beginning. That is how the idea of the dynamic book as it were was born. We created the facebook page on our travels titled – ‘the heat and dust project: a book in motion’ – where we give out funny stories, pictures and confessions while the journey is on. It received a warm welcome from the facebooking community which also chipped in with suggestions of its own and the group has grown to almost two thousand members in a very short span.

5) If you can list down some of the authors and books that have influenced your writing....

I read just about anything I can lay my hands on so this is a tough one.
But one writer who has been an indirect influence on The Vague Woman’s Handbook is Alexander McCall Smith who writes with such humour, gentleness and wisdom, and whose female protagonists – and the men in their lives – I am in love with. While the voice of Vague Woman is very much in contrast to McCall Smith’s – because it is hysterical and reflects an Indian idiom – I do think he was a kind of an influence in shaping the book.

The Diary of Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding and Confessions of a Shopaholic are two other books that I enjoyed greatly – modern women’s fiction, as they are, with a self-reflexive voice that questions even as it surrenders to misadventures.
 A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf would probably be the one book that I’d risk my life to save from a burning library!

6) What has been the general response to The Vague Woman's Handbook? Were you tentative to begin with as a writer? And post its publishing, what are your feelings about being an author and how do you intend going forward with this? Are you also pursuing anything else besides writing?

Luckily, I’ve had emails from readers, from all over the country, saying they loved Mil and Indira. I’m all inspired to pen the further misadventures of the vague women – there is definitely going to be a sequel.
There has also been a lot of support for my vague theory! The book is, after all, not only a celebration of vagueness – but also in defence of it. Most modern women are over-worked and carry to-do lists in their heads that span things they have to do for work, home, children, families – and in India, even for second cousins twice removed. The amount of pressure on them often forces them to be in-control. Being a vague woman is thus also a sort of protest against this system that requires lives to be so planned and organized; and it is only when one allows the mind – and the contours of life – to wander, to be vague, that creativity finds its expression.
Incidentally, just recently I found out about this minor movement within Western philosophy: a movement to reinstate the vague, which had been pioneered by the philosopher William Archer. He had meant it to be in the realm of scientific thinking but I think it might be good to reinstate the vague in many aspects of the smug lives the middle and upper classes live.

I consider myself ‘an obsessive reader with a slight writing problem’ – and hardly a writer, with just one book. When I was working on The Handbook – and Saurav will tell you there are at least 50 versions and drafts – I did not take myself too seriously. I wrote as and when, now and then and on the move.
Nowadays there are a lot of writers who spend far less time writing and far more time (and money) promoting their books and marketing themselves. In fact, they’ve made it difficult for old-fashioned authors – who wrote in quiet corners and let the book do the talking – to even exist! Ultimately, I guess, to each his own. I have a very very long way to go – and so I must concentrate on the sheer art of writing, hone it and sharpen my voice continuously.
Saurav and I are very excited about The Heat and Dust Project – and at the moment we’re working on it.
And as for other things, I’m a freelance book editor and am also doing a PhD from JNU in Theatre and Performance Studies.

1 comment:

Nayeem said...

Interesting Title. As I am reading your review, how do you select such interesting books. You give enough to keep the reader engaged and clearly drive the reader to run for book store. Not sure how you that so well. Good review.
Keep them coming.